Keep Your Pants On
The Menendez-Dominican prostitute story, and why it’s teetering.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Do we really have to root for Bob Menendez? The pride of the Union City, N.J., Democratic machine? The senator who allegedly blocked an attorney’s promotion because she worked on a (flimsy) corruption case against him? The guy who clings so bitterly to the American embargo on Cuba that he once blocked two of Barack Obama’s science advisers—science advisers!—until he was reassured that history’s least effective blockade was safe?
Possibly. Menendez has earned a one-day respite from the life of an “embattled senator.” ABC News and the Washington Post have sprayed iced water on a four-month-old allegation that the senator hired underaged prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. Nexis de los Santos Santana, a woman who had told ABC News just before the 2012 election that she’d slept with Menendez, has recanted in an affidavit. ABC News is also reporting that it had been led to the story by “Republican operatives who insisted on anonymity.”
After scrutinizing the allegations in 2012, ABC News decided not to report them. But the GOP operatives walked the story over to the Daily Caller, the website founded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson to outscoop the mainstream media. And on Nov. 1, 2012, Carlson’s site reported that “two women from the Dominican Republic told The Daily Caller that Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez paid them for sex.”
The mainstream media largely ignored it before Election Day, and Menendez won re-election. But the story stayed alive, becoming part of the “undernews,” as former Slate blogger/current Daily Caller blogger Mickey Kaus has dubbed “stories bubbling up from the blogs and the tabs that don't meet MSM standards.” Those standards are all over the ABC News story, which refers to the DC as a mere “conservative web site.” Yet mere “website” status didn’t stop the DC from Incepting this story into the minds of New Jersey Democrats, or stop reporters from asking Democrats to respond to the “reports.” Because Menendez is accused of many things, and because he’s had to pay $58,500 for flights on a donor’s airplane and because that donor, Salomon Melgen, has received favors from Menendez totally unconnected to the unsubstantiated sex parties, “reports” could mean anything. To save time, everyone assumed Menendez was running from the allegation with all the sex.
Menendez, the sort of pol who corrects for a grimy public image by wearing red, white, and blue shirts and ties, didn’t have to worry about the prostitution rumor until Melgen’s office was raided in January 2013, and the press started covering his very real financial scandals. Since then, he’s stuck to one talking point and repeated it like a chorus of “Hey Jude.” His accusers are “anonymous, nameless, faceless individuals on a Web site,” purveyors of “smears.”
Menendez responded to the “smears” with a crisis team. They earned their keep. By mid-February, the New York Times’ news pages were calling Menendez “capable of bare-knuckle politics” and a “brawler who once wore a bulletproof vest to testify in a federal corruption case against a powerful political mentor.” And the sexual allegations against Menendez began to fall apart. In early February, Univision interviewed a woman with the same name as one of the supposed Dominican prostitutes who insisted she had never met the senator. The Miami Herald “combed the Dominican Republic to find evidence that Menendez consorted with prostitutes” but found nothing.
The conservative media, in turn, became contemptuous of the MSM’s desire to protect embattled Democrats. Ever since Matt Drudge and not Newsweek broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, this has been conservative narrative—one confirmed by the 2011 Anthony Weiner scandal, when Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz tweeted that the key evidence was probably fake.
The result of this well-earned paranoia is a deductive, prove-this-wrong-why-don’t-you theory of the scoop. The Daily Caller noted that “one of the clues that Weiner wasn’t telling the truth was that he was following a lot of young girls on Twitter,” and—hey! —Menendez was following “a very young-looking Dominican girl on Twitter.” It turned out that the girl lived in New Jersey and had appeared in a Menendez campaign ad. Another site attempted to advance the story by pointing out that Menendez’s adult daughter was a political strategist and HuffPost Live host: “His daughter’s past views and writings on sexuality and gender issues are in conflict with the senator’s actions in the Dominican Republic.”
The MSM is just as contemptuous of the conservative narrative, and skeptical. After all, what reporter doesn’t want to ruin a politician, any politician, by digging out a scandal? The reporters who wrote this week’s Washington Post and ABC News stories on Menendez previously broke news on Solyndra and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, respectively.
Conservatives are confounded by today’s stories, but not convinced. The killer docs are “affidavits obtained by The Washington Post.” Did the paper get them at a press conference conducted by a cousin of Salomon Melgen? No—I’m told that the paper got them independently, but I had to ask. Matthew Boyle, the reporter who wrote the first Daily Caller stories on Menendez writes that the Washington Post “got the wrong girl.” A Breitbart.com item catches the Post tweaking the story to remove a reference to the Daily Caller and add the reference to the cousin—all “arguably relevant to the question of whether the new story is credible.” Yet right over there is ABC News, explaining that the recanting prostitute was offered to them, and to yjr DC, by Republican sources.
Who’s gotten the best of this story? The Daily Caller walks away with something. Even if its original story disintegrates, we’re left with the insane tale of a midlevel Bond villain attempting to frame a U.S. senator in foreign courts. An amateur media critic might wag his finger at David Martosko, who picked up the DC’s story after Boyle switched jobs. But at the end of February, Martosko announced a move to the Daily Mail, the tabloid that’s become “the biggest newspaper in the world.” The undernews always wins.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.