The competition was stiff, but there was no stronger/stranger headline yesterday than "CIA is said to link Cuba to plot to smear senator." Five Washington Post reporters broke the story that Cuban-American (and resolutely pro-embargo) Sen. Bob Menendez was "asking the Justice Department to pursue evidence obtained by U.S. investigators that the Cuban government concocted an elaborate plot to smear him with allegations that he cavorted with underage prostitutes." It had been more than a year since sources in the Menendez "scandal" recanted or disappeared; now, it was reported that the mysterious "Pete Williams," who tried to pitch the story to several outlets but only succeeded with the Daily Caller, was a golem created by "operatives from Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence."
This is generally bad news if you favor normalizaton of relations with Cuba. The past months have seen a renaissance of the sort of cockamamie schemes that defined the early Cold War; first the failure of our intelligence community's fake "Cuban Twitter," now this. It's also incredible news for Menendez, who was never accused of being the cleanest senator. The implosion of the prostitution story drained attention away from Menendez's connection to a wealthy eye doctor who was being investigated by the feds. The fact that Mendendez took tropical vacations with the guy and initially failed to report them became boring, once the trips stopping looking like "sex parties." We knew at the time that Menendez had tapped an aggressive response team. They earned their wage.
Funny enough, so did the conservative media that broke the "story." Now that the entire Menendez scandal may have been concocted by Cubans, it's amazing to remember how the Daily Caller hyped this thing and how no one who worked on the story suffered any consequence. In November 2012, right before Menendez's easy re-election, the DC's Matt Boyle reported that "two women from the Dominican Republic told the Daily Caller that Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez paid them for sex earlier this year." He shared a reporting credit with Charles C. Johnson. Boyle followed up with the claim that "a high-level government official" in the DR was confirming the story of Menendez's "sex parties." (The source was not named.)
In December, Boyle moved to Breitbart.com, where he still works. The DC's Menendez beat went to executive editor David Martosko, a longtime conservative PR strategist who had once used a fake name to obtain information on animal rights activists. After a source created a website with Menendez allegations, Martosko wrote confidently that his magazine "reported in November that Menendez purchased the service of prostitutes in that Caribbean nation at a series of alcohol-fueled sex parties." No CYA words like "allegedly" in there! Martosko wrote that ABC News was responding with "radio silence" to the charge that it had known of and passed on the story; future stories, occasionally written in collaboration with Johnson, repeated the claims made by anonymous sources, and attempted to advance the narrative by asking women's groups if they'd call for Menendez to quit—you know, if the story was true. Other outlets tried to get at the story by asking Democrats to awkwardly respond to the rumors.
Still others in the media tried to cover their bases.
After the FBI raided the office of Menendez's wealthy donor/friend/travel partner, Salomon Melgen, the prostitution allegation rose out of the undernews. Other conservative media, led by Sean Hannity, talked more confidently about the "double standard" that was protecting a Democratic senator. The DC, again led by Martosko, attempted to advance the story by reporting that a Ukrainian model who lived at a Melgen-owned property was an "alleged prostitute." This was confirmed, if you want to use that word, in a follow-up story that profiled a "professional escort who travels the East Coast seeing clients in cities from Miami to Boston" and had "identified a photo of Sen. Bob Menendez as a man who paid her for sex."
That story didn't get much pickup, even after Martosko made media rounds on RT and CNN, pronouncing it confirmed and "vetted." On RT, he claimed that the DC's reporters had "talked to a professional booker—a madam, if you will—in New Jersey, who we'll be writing about more."
This was at the end of February. A week later the Washington Post and ABC News reported that a prostitute in the DR had recanted and said she was pushed to lie about Menendez. Martosko insisted that the source was not one of the original DC sources. Next, he threw up dust by pointing out that "a Dominican politician related to a top political donor" to Menendez was pushing the story.
Finally, Martosko wrote an exhaustive piece detailing "what we know" about Menendez and "the ladies of the evening." According to Martosko, "before publishing the story," the magazine "independently corroborated some elements of the women's claims," like Menendez's schedule. "The DC also vetted the source who brought the women forward, and reconfirmed details with that source after The Washington Post's story broke Monday." The magazine, Martosko wrote, was "actively pursuing the story" and had "investigators on the ground." New facts would be reported whether they supported the story, or whether they didn't.
That story, which gave a reporting credit to Johnson, was Martosko's last on the Menendez scandal. He was hired away by the Daily Mail, where reporting a fake story means never saying sorry. On March 22, 2013, after the lawyer representing the prostitutes recanted, the DC rebutted him and editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson said he was "under pressure to change his story." This was the last article on the site about the topic.
It's a remarkable story of blunders and hubris, and here's the kicker—no one has suffered any repurcussions. Last night, I tweeted the last lines of Martosko's final story, and he tweeted back at me with a question: "Shall we go through your catalog next?" In a subsequent tweet, he clarified that he was talking about my 2010 resignation from the Washington Post over crude emails I'd sent to a private journalist/writer listserv. In his mind, running multiple false stories that may have been planted by Cuban intelligence was no different then being caught sending crude emails. Resigning and apologizing for a mistake? No different then being suckered by sources, putting a bunch of possible libel online, taking a new job, and never returning to the story.
Credit to the people who pushed this story in the first place. They needed to flog it to people who would run it without reservation, and whose readership would believe anything.
Next, why I think the plot to bring down Menendez was actually brilliant.