A Smear Campaign Goes South

Cuban operatives tried to hurt Sen. Menendez, and news organizations ran with it.

Photo of Senator Robert Menendez

A Cuban plot to smear the senator?

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So those who were defending Sen. Bob Menendez in 2012 were wrong, it appears. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was accused of paying underage girls in the Dominican Republic for sex. Menendez was up for re-election very soon after the story appeared on the conservative website The Daily Caller, and the GOP thought it had a chance to take the Senate back. Those who could not imagine that Menendez would do such an offensive and patently stupid thing thought it was a conservative hit-job on the lawmaker.

It turns out they were probably mistaken. Actually, it was a bunch of communists who planted the story to damage Menendez.

[SEE: Political Cartoons]

According to a well-reported piece in the Washington Post, Cuban operatives unhappy about Menendez’s opposition to normalizing relations with Cuba were the people behind the potentially damaging story. The paper reports that the Cubans created a false tipster named "Pete Williams" (Seriously, could they not pick the name of a respected NBC reporter and former Defense Department spokesman?) and tried to plant the story in American media. ABC, to its great credit, declined to go with it, unable to confirm the stories or even the real identities of the two Dominican women who claimed to have had sexual relationships for pay with the senator. The Post did some of the best reporting on the story, continuing with the tale’s sketchy details even after Menendez won re-election and it seemed less important – politically, at least. The Post was able to shoot numerous holes into the story and it died a natural death.

But The Daily Caller ran with it. In the old days, this would not have mattered; unless a serious and legitimate news organization gave credibility to a story, such gossip in other news and opinion outlets was ignored. Unfortunately, the pressure in the Internet era to be first (instead of being right) ends up taking precedence. Even news organizations that did not report the initial story ended up covering the controversy over the publishing of the story. And it had all the elements that make such a story so tempting to run down and report. It would seem unfair to immediately reject charges of sexual misconduct against minors, and since the alleged venue of the behavior involved a local doctor Menendez knew, it had a certain kind of plausibility.

Really, you have to give the Cubans credit for understanding what attracts American media – sex, power, men behaving-badly and beach locales. It just wasn’t true.

[SEE: Cartoons on the Democratic Party]

It’s not enough to say, "my bad, guess we had it wrong." News outlets, even those with short histories and uneven reputations, ought to know better than the run with a story like that so close to the election. Good journalism means running down tips. Good journalism also means accepting it when your hard work shows that the tip was wrong, or at least unverifiable. One’s credibility suffers more from printing something prematurely than by not being first to break a story. And anyone should be suspicious of any story that conveniently surfaces in just the right amount of time to do damage to a campaign (especially to voter turnout), but not with enough time to refute.

Menendez is still reportedly under investigation for whether he used his position to further the doctor friend’s business interests. But he is owed many apologies by those who took the patronizing-prostitution charges at face value. And he should be grateful to the Post for not letting go of its inquiry into the smear campaign.