March 5, 2013

(Gary Cameron/Reuters)

In late January, Martha Raddatz of ABC News conducted an extensive interview with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). The session took place after the Daily Caller had reported that Menendez was being investigated by the FBI for “sleeping with underage Dominican prostitutes.”

Raddatz discussed a number of topics with Menendez: immigration, Benghazi, Chuck Hagel. What she didn’t discuss was the prostitution story, to the dismay of NewsBusters and other aggressive media watchdogs. With a total of six minutes of air time, Raddatz didn’t ask one single question about the FBI’s investigation of Menendez. Wrote Noel Sheppard of NewsBusters: “Can you imagine her ignoring such an issue if she were interviewing a Republican? That probably would have been the first order of business if not the entire six minutes.”

Now we know why ABC News omitted any mention of these allegations: They knew stuff, and they had their doubts.

In a post today on the ABC News site, Rhonda Schwartz and Brian Ross deliver a few details that upend a Nov. 1 Daily Caller story alleging that Menendez paid for sex in the Dominican Republic. That story consisted of interviews with two alleged prostitutes who attested to having conducted transactions with the senator.

It looks as if ABC News got the same spiel as the Daily Caller. In her story, Schwartz-Ross say that ABC News received back-to-back interviews with the Daily Caller with three women who leveled the allegations against Menendez. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, one of those women has recanted the story and says that the whole operation was an effort to frame Menendez and a friend and donor from Florida, Dr. Salomon Melgen.

Three bombshells from ABC News:

Bombshell No. 1: The recanter yesterday was identified as one Nexis de los Santos Santana. That’s news to ABC News:

In her interview with ABC News before the election, she said her name was Michelle Rodriguez and that she had come forward because Menendez had paid her only $100 of the $500 she had expected. She now says she was coached to make the claim.

Bombshell No. 2 (nuclear): From the story: “Asked during the interview with ABC News how she knew that the man named “Bob” was a United States Senator, one of the other women said she had put the name “Bob” into a web search site and a picture of Menendez popped up.” Here’s what came up on the Erik Wemple Blog’s computer when we searched on “Bob.”

Bombshell No. 3: ABC News reports a troubling degree of sameness among the women’s accounts: “Her account of sex with Menendez in the video interview was almost word-for-word the account given by two other women who were produced for interviews about having sex with the man they knew only as ‘Bob.’” In other words, there appears to have been some coaching involved here.

The ABC News story isn’t a game changer; it’s a game ender.

ABC News has served as the Menendez story’s sleeping dog. The allegations against Menendez got their start nearly a year ago, when the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a good-government nonprofit, received an e-mail from a tipster going by the name of “Peter Williams.” In correspondence with CREW, “Peter Williams” alleged that Menendez had engaged “young prostitutes” in the Dominican Republic. CREW pushed this fellow to come forward or at least chat on the phone about the charges. After it failed to make headway on the story, it passed the tip along to ABC News. It also forwarded the unsubstantiated allegations to the FBI and the Justice Department.

ABC News’s early and apparently deep reporting on the allegations enabled it to avoid imprudent flirtations with Menendez-Prostitution Inc. Take CNN, for example: It sent an investigative reporter to the Dominican Republic to poke around a bit, only to come up with nothing. End result: Push the rumor further into the mainstream media. The Washington Post and Politico, furthermore, published pieces analyzing Menendez’s future in case the allegations panned out.

The trail of facts depicts an admirable act of prosecutorial restraint on the part of ABC News. Since it didn’t get the goods — indeed, it appears that the goods may well have been ungettable – it kept its mouth shut. That it didn’t come forth to crush the story until today makes a good deal of sense: The new revelations about one Nexis de los Santos Santana offered the network an entrée into the story, in that it contradicted the reporting that ABC News had done on the same person, “Michelle Rodriguez.” Absent that inconsistency, any debunking piece would have lacked the credibility of the Schwartz-Ross collaboration that hit the web today.

The whimsical gene of the Erik Wemple Blog, however, would have enjoyed watching ABC News dropping its “Bob” search-engine revelation a few weeks back, just to crush all the conjecture buzzing around about the senator. “We publish stories when we’re ready to publish them and not a moment sooner and in this particular case, there were efforts to push us to publish coming from all sorts of directions, which we resisted,” says ABC News spokesman Jeffrey W. Schneider.

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