The New York Times Bobbles Sen. Lieberman’s Party Affiliation

This morning I sent the following email to the corrections department, nytnews@nytimes.com, with the title “error in today’s paper”:

In “Enter, Pariah: Now It’s Hugs for Lieberman” by Mark Leibovich, Sen. Lieberman is described as a member of the Democratic party.

E.g. “the Democratic Party he still belongs to”

This is not accurate: although he caucuses with them, he’s in his own party, either “Connecticut for Lieberman” or “Independent Democrat” as he has recently apparently renamed it. Even Sen. Lieberman doesn’t claim he’s rejoined the Democratic party, nor has the party accepted him back into full membership.

Thus, he’s no more (or less) a Democrat than Bernie Saunders — a distinction the Times makes clear in the case of Vermont’s Senator. Connecticut deserves equal clarity.

Please correct the error.

If this is not accident, but a deliberate policy choice on the part of the Times, then I think an editorial note explaining why the paper treats the two Senators differently is in order. Connecticut’s Democrats, who rejected Lieberman both in the Primary and the general election, will read that note with some interest.

Very promptly, I received the following reply from Greg Brock:

Dear Mr. Froomkin:

This issue was raised immediately after the election. We have talked to Senator Lieberman’s office more than once now and he assures us that he is still registered on the voter rolls in Connecticut as a Democrat and as of now, he has no plans or reasons to change that registration.

When it is on point to our coverage — a vote he casts in the Senate or other issues he raises — we will, of course, reflect that he is an Independent Democrat or a similar designation.

But saying that he is a member of the Democratic Party is not incorrect. At least according to Mr. Lieberman.

Best regards,
Greg Brock
Senior Editor

I was appalled, as this appeared to me to take stenography to a new level of credulousness. I wrote the following note:

Thank you for the prompt reply. But now I’m even more puzzled.

Why on earth is Senator Lieberman’s opinion definitive? Surely it is the *Party’s* view that matters? Why not find out what, say, Howard Dean says on this (I don’t myself know what he’d say).

Nor is the issue Lieberman’s registration, but rather what line he got elected on. And that is a matter of public record. It was not the Democratic line.

I can claim to be President, and I doubt the Times would take my word for it. It’s quite surprising to see that you took his self-serving word as the final answer on this obviously controversial issue.

It of course serves Sen. Lieberman’s interests to claim to be a Democrat. And it is good to quote him and reflect his views. That is not what is at issue. If in fact his view is erroneous — which it pretty clearly is — then it does not serve the public interest to repeat that claim as fact if it is not actually true.

I wonder if I could have your permission to share either your comment [above] or some other statement (your choice), with readers of my blog, http://discourse.net?

After a little more to-and-fro, Mr. Brock responded with an email giving me permission to quote his message above and adding “I had discussed this with our Washington editors and reporters and the consciousness has been raised that we need to be more precise in all references in the future.” He also noted,

… that just because I explained that his office confirmed that he is still a registered Democrat does NOT mean that we will call him that in the paper every time we refer to him. … we plan to give the specifics:

He is an independent. He caucuses with the Democrats. . and where applicable, we will remind readers that he was elected on a specific independent line on the Conn ballot.

I suppose in some technical sense, if Lieberman is still registered as a Democrat that could be said to be “the party he belongs to” — but I still think that’s really misleading in the context of an article about his relation with Senate Democrats in which Lieberman is called a “wayward Democrat” and which refers at one point to “every Democrat in Connecticut’s Congressional delegation except Mr. Lieberman.”

It doesn’t seem that I’m going to get my correction. But I hope that Mr. Brock’s note means that the Times is going to be more careful about Lieberman’s party affiliation in the future. If not, my next step will be to write to the Public Editor (ombudsman).

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6 Responses to The New York Times Bobbles Sen. Lieberman’s Party Affiliation

  1. md 20/400 says:

    So by that logic Jim Webb doesn’t belong to a party because there is no party registration in Virginia. No, Webb ran as the Democratic party’s candidate and is a Democratic senator. Lieberman is not a Democratic senator.

    I wonder how the Times identifies people who get nominated by multiple parties in New York. Perhaps the rule of using party registration helps there–though why can’t they just do (RC-NY) is beyond me.

  2. anon says:

    What if someone decides to switch parties after getting elected? Which party do they belong to? Should they be forced to stay with the same party? This argument shows how stupid the two party system is.

  3. Hmm .. there really is a complex categorization issue here, and the rituals of political coverage make it hard to express. “Quasi-Democrat”?

    This is what multiparty democracies call “Part of the Democratic coalition” – i.e. small parties which aren’t the plurality party, but ally with them to form the Parlimentary majority.

    HEY – We have an honest-to-God multiparty Senate:

    Dem: 49
    Rep: 49
    Socialist: 1
    Lieberman: 1

    Governing majority (“Democratic coalition”) = Dem + Socialist + Lieberman = 51

    This has confused the provincial US political reporters, but I think it can be explained to them.

  4. md 20/400 says:

    Don’t forget Jeffords.

    This is fun.

  5. Mark R. says:

    To a certain extent, self-identification does matter when it comes to party affiliation. And, yes, so does the line on which your name appears on the ballot, and the willingness of bona fide party members to accept you as one of theirs. (Note that the same article that called Lieberman a “wayward” Democrat also said he was greeted by party members with hugs and kisses…they don’t give those out to any ol’ Trent Lott, last I checked.)

    To me it’s a little silly to claim that Lieberman is not a Democrat. He was the party’s vice presidential nominee but six years ago, has always been a Democrat, still claims to be a Democrat, will caucus with the Democrats, who accept him (and need him), and apparently is registered as a Democrat in Connecticut.

    That he did not get elected on the Democrat line should not be dispositive (even though it’s relevant), because otherwise there could be no party switching, dropping, or joining ever–or at least til the next election which, especially for senators, can be a long time.

    There are couple factors at work here that support this conclusion. First, look at it from a sort of common sense, realist perspective. There are some intangibles at work here–self-identification, party acceptance (regardless of motive), voter registration, etc. These things should count for something.

    Second, don’t forget that “independent” is not a party; it’s precisely the lack of any party membership. (Caveat: Sure, I suppose there might be lurking out there something called the Independent Party…but Lieberman was a small “i” independent.) This matters because it’s not like Lieberman needs a release from the independents before joining the Democrats. (And certainly here too self-identification would play a big role because I can’t see how any non-independent, e.g., a Republican, would need a release before quitting the party. Self-identification works both ways.) If we insist on concluding he was an independent when elected (as I do, because that’s what the ballot said) then surely as a free agent he can re-join the Democrats if he wants. He was forced to disassociate himself with the party before the election, then, once elected, re-associated himself with the party. That’s one way of rationalizing what’s happened here: independent on Nov. 7, Democrat on Nov. 8.

    Jeffords, like Lieberman, did not switch parties; he quit the GOP, labeled himself a small “i” independent and started caucusing with the Democrats. Jeffords never said he was becoming a Democrat but I imagine if he had he would have been welcome just the same.

    Bernie Sanders, as far as I know, has never affiliated himself with any party. He has always been independent of party affiliations. The “I” newspapers use is just by analogy and for stylistic purposes.

    What boggles my mind most about this–as Prof. Froomkin points out–is the apparent willingness of the press to go along with this “independent Democrat” thing of Lieberman’s. Though Froomkin’s hang-up seems to be the second word, Democrat. For me it’s the first word. This whole monicker is just made up. That’s like Trent Lott (yes, it is Pick On Trent Lott Day) saying, Please call me a “powerful Republican” or perhaps a compassionate one. “Independent Democrat” is not a party. Lieberman’s just playing press secretary, trying to get the adjectives he wants before his name. It’s smarmy but it’s typical Lieberman. Don’t forget, Lieberman is the same hack who punted on the impeachment vote by voting “not present.”

    And yet this Democrat still considers him one of us.

    Btw, does any one else see a comparison here with the rules on domicile?

  6. Mark R. says:

    Sorry, meant to say Lieberman voted “not proved.” Maybe he was not really present too.

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