February 11, 2013
(J. Scott Applewhite, File/Associated Press)
(J. Scott Applewhite, File/Associated Press)

Good news: A study has concluded that prominent media organizations are “whistling past” the prostitution allegations against U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D=N.J.). The Media Research Center, a conservative news-watchdog outfit, finds that the Big Three television networks and other killer news orgs are staying away from the charges, first reported by the Daily Caller, that Menendez romped with prostitutes while on trips to the Dominican Republic with campaign donor-cum-Florida eye surgeon Dr. Salomon Melgen.

Partisan biases hover over the media’s lack of relish for this particular dimension of the Menendez story, writes the Media Research Center. As proof, it cites the media beatdown that descended on then-Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain after Politico published a story alleging that he had sexually harassed employees of the National Restaurant Association. Here’s the gripe:

The lack of coverage of the Menendez scandal is in stark contrast to how the Big Three handled various sex scandals of Republican figures. As MRC’s Scott Whitlock found in November 2011: “When Herman Cain faced harassment charges, the networks reacted quite differently. A Media Research study found: In only eight and a half days, NBC, CBS and ABC have devoted a staggering 99 stories to sexual harassment charges against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.”

That attempt at apples-to-apples media comparison is actually quite instructive for how it undermines its very own premise. Let’s look at how Politico’s October 2011 Cain scoop differs from the Menendez-prostitute thing.

• Politico’s Cain scoop was published in Politico, an outlet that hadn’t misreported that a federal agency was seeking to increase its staff by 230,000 employees but failed to issue a correction on the piece. The Menendez story was published in the Daily Caller, an outlet that had indeed misreported that a federal agency was seeking to increase its staff by 230,000 employees but failed to issue a correction on the piece.

• Politico’s Cain scoop rested on: multiple sources; evidence that the alleged harassees had signed settlements with the restaurant group; a comment from a Cain campaign aide that the candidate himself had “indicated to campaign officials that he was ‘vaguely familiar’ with the charges and that the restaurant association’s general counsel had resolved the matter.” The Daily Caller talked with a couple of women via webcam.

• Politico’s scoop led to the emergence of a named, on-the-record Cain accuser (Sharon Bialek) within a week of the story’s publication. The Daily Caller’s Menendez story has had more than three months to pry loose a similar witness. Nothing yet.

So let’s not go comparing the treatment of Cain and Menendez.

Right-leaning media critics should be elated with the media on Menendez. Prostitution is legal in the Dominican Republic, meaning that if the senator had messed around down there, he’d face no legal issues, no threat to his power. (Underage prostitutes are another matter). Yet the senator does face significant repercussions for the stories that the mainstream media have indeed pursued, those alleging that he contacted bureaucrats on a Medicare-billing case and on a Dominican port-security contract in which Melgen had an interest.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), has a notion of why some outlets are up in arms over the hazy allegations of prostitution: “Senator Menendez and Medicare and port security are not going to get you the same number of click-throughs,” says Sloan.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.