How Conservative Media Is Feeding the Anti-Hagel Frenzy

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Feb. 15 2013 7:49 PM

Eleven Days to Stop Hagel

How the right-wing media found a powerful new ally: Senate Republicans.

Ted Cruz speaking during the Republican National Convention.
Ted Cruz has asked Defense nominee Chuck Hagel to prove he has not accepted foreign campaign contributions.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s full-service politics magazine, just celebrated three years in business. The Washington Free Beacon, founded by comrades and scions from The Weekly Standard, just turned one. Thanks to them, two administration allies—Sen. Bob Menendez and former Sen. Chuck Hagel—have added that terrifying Washington word, embattled, to their business cards.*

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Matthew Continetti, the editor of the Free Beacon, said so in his weekly column for the site. Politico’s media reporter, Dylan Byers, had heaped scorn on the Free Beacon for dogging the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee for 990 tax forms and a 2008 tape of a Chuck Hagel speech. The tape, once discovered, was a snoozer. But the Free Beacon’s reporting had pulled it loose, along with the 990s. And the Free Beacon and the Daily Caller had been asking questions about Menendez’s Bill-and-Ted relationship with Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor who traded trips to the Dominican Republic for a little senatorial clout in his negotiations over a lucrative port deal.

“When Chuck Hagel withdraws his nomination,” wrote Continetti, “and Bob Menendez resigns his Senate seat, the usual suspects will bemoan the state of affairs that have allowed horrible conservatives to besmirch the reputations of such honorable and decent men. The usual suspects, of course, will have missed the real lesson: reporting works.”

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The national Republican Party is splintered, angry, and captivated by infighting. Fox News is putting up surprisingly weak ratings. But the conservative new media is having a great second term. Three sources—the Weekly Standard’s blog, the Free Beacon, and Jennifer Rubin’s Right Turn blog at the Washington Post—have outpaced the media in leaks and memos from Senate Republicans and revelations from old Hagel speeches.

I discovered that firsthand when I couldn’t find a long Hagel quote cited in a Republican memo but absent in the book it was sourced to. In no time at all, the Free Beacon’s industrious Adam Kredo produced the evidence—a long tape that the book’s author hadn’t used. The anti-Hagel universe is small, and despite what Continetti writes, it’s not likely to get a withdrawal from a nominee with 60-odd commitments for a cloture vote.

But we’re talking about a cloture vote, aren’t we? It’s also become public knowledge, from New Jersey Democratic dinners all the way up to Jay Leno, that Sen. Bob Menendez is being investigated “for allegedly soliciting Dominican prostitutes.” In November, when the Daily Caller published that story, the rest of the media ignored it, and New Jersey politicos knew that a rumor that hadn’t been confirmed by other news outlets had found purchase somewhere less reputable. “When it was that weird Daily Caller video,” said Buzzfeed’s Ruby Cramer, “it was whatever.”

And no other outlet has confirmed it. The FBI raided Melgen’s office, which kicked off a series of investigative stories on his financial ties to Menendez. Almost immediately, the prostitution allegation was conflated with the financial investigation. Other media, chasing the prostitution story, have totally failed to find the sources. The Washington Post, most hilariously, sent a reporter down to the alleged sex scene and got back a (well-crafted!) travel piece.

Menendez and Hagel tried to ignore this stuff, until they couldn’t. Why couldn’t they? Former Slatester Mickey Kaus coined and honed the term “undernews” to describe “stories bubbling up from the blogs and the tabs that don't meet MSM standards.” Every time a gif is born, it becomes harder for the “mainstream media” to sift out what its readers know—and what its reporters know. In October 2012, when the Daily Caller ran its first Menendez story, political reporters stayed up and tweeted in anticipation of a damaging-looking story previewed on the Drudge Report. No matter how much Drudge gets wrong, whatever runs there surfaces in the “undernews.” Only after they get an excuse, like the FBI cracking into Melgen’s office, do reporters admit that they knew about this, and start lobbing questions.

It’s all very entertaining for Matthew Boyle, who ran the first Menendez story at the Daily Caller and now reports for Breitbart.com. “How many times does this have to happen before the old media catches on?” he asks. “If this story broke in the New York Times, people in the old media would have covered it. If it was about a Republican they would have run it. There's a gutless factor in the media and a double standard when it comes to Democrats versus Republicans. They don't have any balls.”

But it’s not that simple. From 2004 to 2011, gay rights activist Mike Rogers ran BlogActive, a site that (among other things) “outed” Republicans who voted the wrong way. He got scoops, scaring Virginia Rep. Ed Schrock into retirement with tapes of his escort service calls, but the media didn’t chase most of his stories. Oct. 17, 2006, weeks before the midterm demolition of the GOP, Rogers ran an item “call[ing] on Senator Larry Craig to end his years of hypocrisy by leveling with Idahoans about who he really is.” Rogers claimed to have traveled from D.C. “to the Pacific Northwest to meet with men who say they have physical relations with the Senator.”

Eight months later, Craig tapped his foot in the bathroom of a Minneapolis airport and got arrested for soliciting gay sex. All of a sudden the Post was calling Rogers the “most feared man in Washington,” a man who cold-called congressional offices and asked, “Are you gay?” The media’s standards kept them from pursuing a story.

Is that what’s happened to Hagel and Menendez? Again, it’s not as clear as Continetti makes it sound. “Our reporting on Hagel hasn’t come up empty,” he writes. “Not one bit.” That blows right past a Free Beacon story from December about how Hagel “may no longer be President Obama’s favored pick to run the Defense Department” and how the cowed administration was moving on. Some of the juiciest stories in conservative new media have speculated on what might be contained in the information Hagel (or Menendez) won’t release. This sort of reporting-by-reduction probably peaked when Breitbart.com speculated on a possible donation to a Hagel group by “Friends of Hamas,” a group that does not actually exist.

But this reporting has an occasional ally: Senate Republicans. In the Jan. 31 Hagel hearing, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe cited a slam on the nominee that came from Jennifer Rubin’s reported blog. In his own questions, which have quickly made him the media’s least favorite Republican, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has asked Hagel to prove that he doesn’t have unreported funding from foreign creeps. “It is at a minimum relevant to know,” he said, “if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.” The last best hope of beating Hagel is that in the next 11 days these sorts of questions and allegations will turn up something—a “bombshell,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham calls it—that sinks him.

On Thursday, as the cloture vote on Hagel narrowly failed, Free Beacon reporter Alana Goodman reported on a 2007 speech Hagel (then a senator and potential presidential candidate) gave at Rutgers. According to George Ajjan, a Hagel admirer, the nominee had said something about the State Department working as an adjunct of the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office. It was a paraphrase, and no tape or transcript was available, but Goodman got Ajjan to confirm the gist.

Twenty-four hours later, Graham and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte sent an open letter to the nominee.

“Yesterday,” they wrote, “the Washington Free Beacon reported that in a 2007 speech at Rutgers University regarding America's relationship with the Middle East you remarked that ‘the State Department was becoming an adjunct of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.’ Given the importance of U.S. policy towards the Middle East and the Secretary of Defense's direct role in implementing this policy, it is critical that we have a better understanding of your remarks before we vote on your confirmation.”

News of this letter first broke in the Weekly Standard.

Correction, Feb. 17, 2013: This article originally misidentified Chuck Hagel as a Democrat. (Return to the corrected sentence.)