February 19, 2013
Sen. Robert Menendez
Sen. Robert Menendez (J. Scott Applewhite /AP)

CNN’s chyron read, “SCANDALOUS ALLEGATIONS, SKIMPY EVIDENCE.” The story was about Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — specifically about the charges that he engaged prostitutes while in the Dominican Republic.

“Skimpy” may actually overstate the case. Outside of some e-mails from one “Peter Williams,” a person who has refused interviews with various news outlets and organizations, there’s no evidence that Menendez has gone on any such romp. On Nov. 1, the Daily Caller published a story titled, “Women: Sen. Bob Menendez paid us for sex in the Dominican Republic [VIDEO]“. But that piece rested on Internet interviews with two women who weren’t ID’d and whose faces were blurred over in the video. It also cited Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and generous Democratic donor.

CNN, accordingly, strove to get to the bottom of things. It sent CNN Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin to the Dominican Republic to knock on some doors. That’s how the segment below gets started, as Griffin tries to snare an interview at the threshold of “Models’ House Girl’s Club.” He gets nowhere.

A meta-journalism moment then arises: Griffin puts his finger on the very bind in which CNN finds itself: “Could it be one big slander campaign, aimed at baiting a scandal-hungry press into saying or printing the name of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, teenage prostitution and Caribbean sex parties all in one sentence?”

It sure could be!

Credit CNN for sending a reporter to the Dominican Republic to poke around. And Griffin makes a valiant attempt to advance this story, interviewing Vinicio Castillo, a friend of Menendez, about the whole affair. Castillo says, “This is an artificial ghost created especially in order to damage Senator Menendez, Melgen, and myself.” Dominican authorities, reports Griffin, are “about to investigate the source of Peter Williams and his damaging e-mails.”

Do those small-bore revelations justify an august news outlet like CNN republishing a set of thin and slimy allegations? That’s a dicey one. (Disclosure: The Washington Post also took a look). But the charges have gotten such exposure of late that a little investigative segment on them barely protrudes from the news stream.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), ABC News, CNN, the New York Times, the Miami Herald — they’ve all set out to investigate the allegations and have come up empty. So the tips from “Peter Williams” now have the smell of a tremendously successful Internet smear campaign. Trouble is, no one has been able to nail down that story, either. Perhaps the Dominican authorities, in their look at this “Peter Williams” fellow, will succeed where American journalism has failed.

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