Three Reasons Mark Kirk's False Claims are Getting Less Attention than Richard Blumenthal's

Rep. Mark Kirk Scott Olson / Getty Images

Everyone knows that if you want to break news, you should not do it on a holiday weekend. And if you want to bury news, that's the perfect time to break it. That's part of the reason that when Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the Republican Senate candidate for Barack Obama's former seat, acknowledged having lied in his official campaign biography about his military service, it got considerably less attention than Connecticut Attorney General—and Democratic Senate nominee—Richard Blumenthal's habit of inflating his service record in speeches. But that alone cannot explain the disproportionate attention given to Blumenthal's error—which was sometimes conflating in speeches his service during the Vietnam era with service in Vietnam itself, but not lying in any official campaign materials—with the collective yawn that Kirk has received for explicitly, officially, and falsely claiming to have won the U.S. Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year award for service during NATO's conflict with Serbia.

His good fortune to have gotten media inquiries right before Memorial Day—allowing him to change his official bio over the weekend and see the story come out on the Sunday of a three-day weekend—is definitely a factor. But yesterday the media was back at work and the day's conversation was hardly driven by a brouhaha over whether Kirk would have to drop out, or a semi-apologetic damage-control speech carried on all the cable news networks, as it was with Blumenthal. And that's despite the fact that news did continue to emerge: on Tuesday the Navy told the Chicago Tribune that, contra Kirk's claim that his campaign staff discovered the error, they had alerted Kirk to media inquiries about it. And a campaign commercial saying Kirk won the award is making the Internet rounds. Considering that Kirk can in no way pass off his claims as an occasional slip of the tongue, as Blumenthal can at least try to, this disparate level of attention seems puzzling on the surface.

I think there are three main reasons:
(1) The media's interest in itself and the snowball effect of media coverage. If you've ever had the misfortune to hang out with journalists, you know that they like to talk about nothing more than the industry itself. Hence, when a story emerges because one of their own boldly dug up the facts, they treat it as a greater revelation. Case in point: The New York Times broke the story about Blumenthal, and put it on A1, so it leads the morning roundups because the Times put it on A1, and therefore it's a very big deal. If a candidate comes clean of his own accord, it's not as good a media story. And since the media loves to focus on itself, the fact that Connecticut Republican Linda McMahon's campaign bragged that it had fed the Blumenthal story to the Times, then retracted that claim, gave the media a chance to gaze at its navel about the ethical quandaries of running with campaign opposition-research dumps, and the wisdom, or lack thereof, of McMahon's boastfulness, and so on. Ultimately, it became something that everyone had to talk about because everyone was talking about it. Like balloon boy, only slightly more important.

(2) The difference between Vietnam and more recent conflicts. As Eleanor Clift noted on The Gaggle at the time of Blumenthal's embarrassment, Vietnam holds a special significance to Americans who came of age during that war. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers died, America lost a war for the first time in its history, and the country was torn apart by social conflict surrounding it. As George Hackett argued in a Gaggle post, lying about having been in Vietnam is especially offensive to veterans of that especially soul-sucking experience. NATO's intervention in the Balkans, which was virtually casualty-free (for Americans), successful, and involved a minimal number of troops, simply does not have the same resonance.

(3) The reluctance to criticize veterans. At this point most Americans, especially most members of the political media, never served. That makes legitimate veterans sometimes immune to charges about the details of their service. (Not always, of course; just ask President John Kerry.) Blumenthal tried to capitalize on this phenomenon by declaring that he wouldn't let his proud record of serving (back home) and advocating for veterans be questioned or overshadowed by "a few misstatements." That raised a few eyebrows at Gaggle central because Blumenthal was in the Marine Reserves but never sent abroad, and that seems like a pretty big distinction. By contrast, while Kirk has actually lied more specifically than Blumenthal, he did, in fact, serve in the Balkans, and won several (less prestigious) awards. He is taking the same defensive tack as Blumenthal, and it might be more effective for him.