Bob Menendez and the fake prostitution scandal
March 19, 2013By Dick Polman
Hey, remember all those yarns in the conservative media about how New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez had supposedly slept with prostitutes? About how he had hired three of them, down in the Dominican Republic, and had ticked them off by underpaying them? And about how two of them were underage?
Remember how the stories ricocheted through the right-wing echo chamber, titillating the comment-board trolls and culminating in calls for the re-elected Democrat to renounce his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee?
Turns out, all the stories were fake. Yeah I know, you're shocked.
The Dominican police announced yesterday that the three women were paid — by local lawyers with shadowy political connections — to falsely smear the senator. Two of the women received $425, and the third got $300, to recite their lies on video. Police said that, in truth, the women never had sex with Menendez, because, in truth, they had never even met him. And none of them were underage anyway.
One of several
A lot of smelly crud has coursed through the conservative media pipeline in recent months — Hillary Clinton wasn't really sick, Barack Obama never went skeet-shooting, Chuck Hagel shilled for a terrorist group called Friends of Hamas — but, for sheer persistence, the award goes to The Daily Caller for flogging the faux hooker scandal. Sixty-six stories, in total.
The Daily Caller, of course, is one of those right-wing outlets (much like Breitbart News, the Drudge Report and the Washington Free Beacon) that purports to practice journalism, but remains clueless about basic journalistic standards. Such as factual reportage.
Granted, Menendez is apparently no angel. He's the target of a federal probe into allegations that he traded favors with a rich donor, Salomon Melgen. He took a couple free flights on Melgen's private jet and failed to report those trips because it supposedly slipped his mind. If he gets nailed by the Senate ethics committee, or worse, then so be it. The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets have covered the Menendez-Melgen story in great detail, because the facts warrant the coverage.
But last summer, when mainstream media outlets got wind of the prostitution allegations — ABC News says it was approached by "Republican operatives who insisted on anonymity" — they did their due diligence. ABC News, The Washington Post, and the Newark Star-Ledger checked out the allegations, and even sent reporters to the Dominican Republic. But they all took a pass.
The timing was suspicious, for one thing; Menendez was in the final sprint toward re-election. The women weren't willing to be identified by name, for another thing. As ABC reported earlier this month, "none of the women could produce identity cards with their names, and they all provided the same story almost word for word, as if they had been coached."
Burden of journalistic proof
This is why we need the mainstream media, to practice the basics of the craft. If sources don't seem credible, or if the allegations aren't verifiable, you don't run the story. If the credibility threshold is reached, you do run the story — like when the Times broke the hooker scandal that sank Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer.
But The Daily Caller, like so many other right-wing outlets, prefers a less stringent threshold. Women were claiming on video that they had paid sex with a Democrat running for re-election; that alone was deemed by the website to be "very credible evidence."
A Caller reporter watched the video and dutifully posted his first story on Nov. 1, just days before the election — with a predictably hyped assist from the Drudge Report: "SEX SCANDAL TO HIT CAMPAIGN...STORY SAID TO INVOLVE POWERFUL SENATOR, SOURCES TELL DRUDGE."
Happily, the conservative media is not monolithic, or monolithically bad. Many of the most responsible outlets — such as The National Review's Washington bureau, which increasingly stresses shoe-leather reporting — have summarily ignored the prostitution angle. And some conservative commentators openly concede that The Caller and Breitbart News, in particular, are bad for business. Columnist Josh Barro, a conservative think-tank alumnus, said on TV not long ago, "When you do bad reporting, it's not just not useful, it's actually brand-damaging."
Brand-damaging indeed. As a Republican critic wittily tweeted yesterday, "Sorry, GOP. Paying Dominicans to say they had sex with a Latino senator isn't 'minority outreach.'"
And how has The Daily Caller reacted to yesterday's announcement Hookergate was a smear-for-hire con job? Did the website post a correction or craft an apology? Oh please. Corrections are for the wimps in the mainstream media.
The Caller took a different tack. It posted the Associated Press story about the cop announcement — and appended it with this hilarious sentence: "The Daily Caller has not independently verified the identities of the women involved in the Dominican National Police investigation, but will continue to investigate the case."
Yeah, you do that.
Meanwhile, here's the GOP's problem in a nutshell.
Monday morning: In a long-awaited report on the GOP's future, the Republican National Committee warns that the party's congressional wing "is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future." For starters, "it is imperative that (the party) changes how it engages with Hispanic communities."
Monday afternoon: Republican senators vow to oppose — and one Republican senator vows to block via parliamentary maneuver — the new Secretary of Labor nominee, a Justice Department lawyer who foiled attempts to suppress minority voters in Texas, South Carolina and Florida. The nominee, Thomas Perez, is the son of Dominican immigrants, a success story in the Hispanic community.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1.