The lieutenant governor may have embellished when talking about voting for Ronald Reagan, but the reporter who criticized him failed to present the most obvious possibility: that Sanchez simply misspoke.
I didn’t realize I was stepping into controversy when I wrote a short post last week about a newspaper article claiming Lt. Gov. John Sanchez said he voted in the 1980 presidential election – which wasn’t possible unless he did it illegally.
At the recent GOP preprimary nominating convention, Simonich wrote, “Sanchez spoke of the pride he felt as an 18-year-old when he voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.” The problem, according to Simonich: “…every record we have checked shows that Sanchez was born on Jan. 11, 1963. Therefore, he would not have reached the legal voting age of 18 until 1981 – two months after Reagan’s election.”
Simonich said there were three possibilities: Sanchez “could be older than his stated age of 49,” might have told “an embellishment to inspire his audience,” or voted illegally for Reagan before he turned 18.
Sanchez has a history of telling eyebrow-raising stories, so Simonich’s claim didn’t surprise me and I wrote about it.
Things get nasty
My first clue that something might be wrong with Simonich’s reporting came on Facebook when I shared a link to my post. State Rep. Dennis Roch said this:
“I was at the convention. As I recall, he merely said that he was proud that one of the first people he voted for after turning 18 was Ronald Reagan. (He may just as easily have been talking about Reagan’s re-election in 1984 as his initial election in 1980.)”
Things moved quickly after that. News New Mexico listened to an audio recording of Sanchez’s speech and reported that what he said was, “My very first vote when I turned 18 years old was for a man called Ronald Reagan.” (The audio recording was made by the Santa Fe Reporter’s Joey Peters. You can listen to it here.)
The right-leaning radio program posted a column slamming Simonich for “pouncing on this seemingly nebulous slip of the tongue” and accusing him of “cleverly” orchestrating a swipe at the secretary of state. That’s because, in his post, Simonich wrote, “New Mexico’s least effective sleuth, Secretary of State Dianna Duran, publicly said last year that she had evidence of more than 100 people voting unlawfully. Sanchez was not among Duran’s suspects, but his own testimony leaves him open to her next great investigation into voter fraud.”
Simonich dug in his heels, writing in a new blog post, “My piece about Lt. Gov. John Sanchez saying he voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 has the spinmasters at work, trying to rewrite a small bit of history.”
“They have attempted to challenge the story with statements on other websites. That is their right, but their facts are wrong. They know it too,” he wrote. “Sanchez told a Republican convention on Saturday that he voted for Reagan just after he turned 18. Sanchez, now 49, was talking about the 1980 election.”
Sanchez’s office then released a statement that read, in part, “I turned eighteen on January 11, 1981. The first time that I was able to cast a ballot for President was in 1984 and I proudly cast that vote for Ronald Reagan. On Saturday, I stated that ‘My very first vote when I turned eighteen years old was for a man called Ronald Reagan.’ I was referring to the first time that I was able to cast a ballot for President after turning eighteen years old.”
Simonich added an update after Sanchez sent out his news release. In it, he claimed the lieutenant governor’s “own words demonstrate the accuracy of what I wrote about him,” and thanked Sanchez for his “honesty.”
Sanchez might have misspoken
What to make of all of this? First let’s talk about Sanchez. He certainly might have been embellishing to “inspire his audience.” Or he might have misspoken.
What Sanchez said was, “My very first vote when I turned 18 years old was for a man called Ronald Reagan.” If you change one word – “My very first vote AFTER I turned 18…” – the statement would be mostly accurate (if you ignore the mid-term election in 1982 and assume he was referring to presidential votes). In fact, look back at Roch’s recollection of the speech, and the word “after” is what he heard. One word makes a difference.
But Sanchez’s statement is subject to skepticism if for no other reason than because he’s a politician. Add his history, and there’s certainly reason to question what he said and why.
Which Simonich did. So let’s talk about him.
As a profession, journalism needs to do a better job of calling a spade a spade and not getting caught up in the spin and counter spin tossed at it all day long. Simonich was attempting to do that.
But if you’re going to call a spade a spade, you had better be certain you can back up your claim.
Sanchez didn’t state that he was referring to the 1980 election, but Simonich wrote, “Sanchez, now 49, was talking about the 1980 election.”
I e-mailed Simonich last week to ask how he was certain. I’ve not heard back. There’s no added context in Sanchez’s speech that points to the 1980 election instead of the 1984 contest.
Most telling is that, when Simonich laid out the three possibilities he saw – that Sanchez was older than stated, that he lied, or that he committed voter fraud – the journalist left out the most obvious possibility, that Sanchez simply misspoke.
Politicians misspeak all the time. Journalists do it. I’ve done it on this site, and on News New Mexico. We all do it.
The importance of admitting mistakes
Simonich’s assumption that Sanchez was talking about the 1980 election is one of two possible interpretations of the facts, but it’s not definitively proven by the facts. Instead of admitting that, Simonich has dug in his heels.
Peters wrote about this last week after interviewing me. Here’s what he quoted me as saying in his article:
“To make sense of this, I asked NMPolitics.net’s Heath Haussamen what he would have done if he were in Simonich’s shoes.
“‘Certainly I would have asked the lieutenant governor for clarification before writing anything,’ he told me.
“It’s unclear whether Simonich did that.
“Haussamen says he’s surprised to see Simonich ‘dig in his heels’ over the matter. “Haussamen adds that it can be hard for journalists to admit that they’ve made a mistake. He recalls inaccuracies he reported last year concerning charges against former District Judge Mike Murphy, which resulted in a post apologizing to his readers and to Murphy.”
We must admit our mistakes. Our credibility is at stake.
I’m not surprised that Sanchez sent out a news release that danced around the fact that he misspoke – or worse. Too many politicians do that. But journalists should hold themselves to a higher standard.
The benefit of the doubt
We all have biases and make assumptions from time to time. But it’s critical that journalists avoid jumping to conclusions without exploring all possibilities and learning the facts first. Otherwise they risk overlooking obvious possibilities, as Simonich did in this case.
I disagree with News New Mexico. I don’t think Simonich used Sanchez to “cleverly” orchestrate a swipe at Duran. I think he just screwed up.
I’m going to give Sanchez the same benefit of the doubt and assume he also simply misspoke.
Unless the facts prove otherwise, the most obvious possibility is usually the correct one. I have no interest in playing the gotcha game. I just wish Simonich and Sanchez would own up to their mistakes.