The Daily Caller story introduced some terms now referenced frequently in hard-nosed coverage on the Democratic New Jersey senator. The romps, it reported, took place around Easter 2012 at Casa de Campo, a pricey Dominican resort. It noted that Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and campaign donor to Menendez, had a place at Casa de Campo. Also: Melgen’s plane around Easter 2012 took a trip from Florida to the Dominican Republic, with a detour through a private New Jersey airport near Menendez’s home. The senator recently had to reimburse Melgen $58,500 for free trips he’d taken on the aircraft, and a Senate ethics inquiry is homing in on the case.
To the readers of the Daily Caller, the prostitutes are anonymous, with video-fuzzing technology masking their faces. “Both asked that their identities remain obscured for fear of reprisals in the Dominican Republic,” says the piece.
That very anonymity is the reason why other news outlets, including the Associated Press, have called the prostitution allegations against the Democratic New Jersey senator “unsubstantiated.”
Unsubstantiated to other outlets doesn’t mean unsubstantiated to Boyle. “I talked to two of the prostitutes, I saw their faces, I heard their voices…and I know their names,” says Boyle, who has jumped to Breitbart.com since the Menendez story. “I’m not going to release [the names] because given the violent and dangerous nature of the business down there, these women are in jeopardy.”
Following publication of the prostitute story, the Daily Caller received no legal threats or correction/retraction requests from the Menendez camp, says Boyle: “Nothing at all. I don’t like to use that as a defense, but I can say it’s a pretty big sign.” Daily Caller Editor-in-Chief Tucker Carlson declined to be interviewed for this story.
Traditional news outlets lack Boyle’s confidence in the prostitution angle.
Jay Ducassi is the metro editor for the Miami Herald: “I don’t want to cast aspersions on anybody, but it’s not something we would have gone with,” says Ducassi.
Carolyn Ryan is the metro editor for the New York Times: “I don’t want to say we’ve reached a conclusion, but we have looked into those charges in detail, and so far we haven’t confirmed them,” she says, noting that the effort to do so will likely continue.
ABC News tells the same tale.
These massively unconfirmed allegations, of course, haven’t stayed within the confines of DailyCaller.com, much to Menendez’s disappointment. In fact, that’s the very gripe he has expressed when confronted about them. “The smears that right-wing blogs have been pushing since the election—and that is totally unsubstantiated,” Menendez recently told CNN’s Dana Bash. “It’s amazing to me that anonymous, nameless, faceless individuals on a website can drive that type of story into the mainstream, but that’s what they’ve done successfully. Now, nobody can find them, no one ever met them, no one ever talked to them, but that’s where we’re at. So the bottom line is all of those smears are absolutely false, and, you know, that’s the bottom line.”
That is the bottom line. A flimsy set of allegations hasn’t just winnowed its way into the mainstream media; it has swamped it. Take your pick: The Washington Post and Politico have written pieces on how Menendez would fare if these unsubstantiated allegations proved true; the New York Times has made mention of the unsubstantiated allegations; the AP has published a piece on Menendez’s response to these unsubstantiated allegations; and the Miami Herald published the results of its investigation into the unsubstantiated allegations. Result? The women at the center of the allegations exist but are “nowhere to be found.”
Isn’t it one of the fundamental duties of the establishment media to protect people—even a public figure who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee—from unsubstantiated allegations? Isn’t this one of those cases when prominent newspapers and television networks should have walled off this matter?
The Miami Herald’s Ducassi is happy to take on that question. His newspaper didn’t touch the Daily Caller story when it surfaced in November. “We never published anything on this,” says Ducassi. Then something big happened. Federal agents raided the south Florida offices of Melgen as part of a Medicare investigation. The feds’ curiosities, though, extended beyond Medicare: “The FBI is separately examining the ties between Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Melgen in a parallel corruption investigation launched last year, The Miami Herald has learned.”
It’s that parallel investigation, says Ducassi, that moved the prostitution matter from what Fox News eminence Bill O’Reilly termed “lascivious crap” to what journalists term “fair game.” “Once we found out the FBI was investigating Menendez, that changed everything for us. … At that point, that’s a pretty good marker for us,” says Ducassi.
Or is it? It’s at this juncture that the Menendez prostitution story gets tricky. The slimy allegations against the senator, as far as we know, began in April 2012, with some e-mails sent to a Washington nonprofit by a tipster going by the name of “Peter Williams.” Staffers at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) expressed great interest in the tips but couldn’t confirm them. They asked “Williams” for all kinds of corroborating evidence for his charges that Menendez had participated in sex parties with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. But “Williams” never came forward. CREW handed off the story to ABC News, which apparently hit the same brick wall.
On July 17, CREW sent an eight-page letter to the Justice Department and the FBI urging an investigation into the allegations forwarded by “Williams.” The missive noted that it’s a federal crime to travel “in foreign commerce for the purpose of engaging in, or actually engaging in, illicit sexual conduct, defined as any commercial sex act with a person under 18 years of age.” Given the seriousness of such charges, CREW noted, the feds should conduct an “immediate, thorough, and fair investigation.”
Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, says she’s certain it’s that July 17 letter that prompted the federal investigation into Menendez’s dealings. “I know factually that the FBI investigation into Menendez was because of what we did,” says Sloan. And here’s the thing: She thinks that the existence of such a probe is a weak peg on which reporters might hang a story. “The existence of an investigation into sketchy allegations doesn’t in itself make the allegations credible,” says Sloan.
There are strong reasons to doubt the story from “Williams,” says Sloan: He had known of these alleged misdeeds for a few years but didn’t bring them forth till election year; he never agreed to meet—or even speak—with CREW, ABC News or the FBI, according to Sloan; and his original tip didn’t contain the underage allegations, which were added in a subsequent e-mail. To paraphrase Sloan, then, the existence of an FBI “investigation” based on thin and shifty charges doesn’t add up to a basis for legitimate news stories.
In Sloan’s view, it’s “telling” that the Daily Caller was “the only place that would report it, because the mainstream media recognized that there were serious credibility problems with this story.” Boyle: “What’s really troubling to me is just because the story broke in new media doesn’t mean the rest of the media shouldn’t cover it.” And Sloan: “I don’t know why Matt Boyle thinks the rest of the media should be following the Daily Caller’s road. If that were the situation, it would be a sad day for American journalism.”
Away from the hot glare of the prostitution angle, the media have done phenomenal work on Menendez. The New York Times, for instance, reported that Menendez pressured federal officials to enforce a port security contract in the Dominican Republic that would benefit Melgen. And today The Washington Post reported that Menendez had intervened on Melgen’s behalf after a finding that the doctor had overbilled the government by $8.9 million for services at his clinic.
The New York Times, says Ryan, has made a concerted effort to dig into the non-prostitutional dimension of the Menendez-Melgen nexus. “We’ve tried to look in more detail at some of the other interesting intersections,” says the metro editor. “Given the unsubstantiated nature of the prostitution stuff, the connection between Menendez and Melgen seemed unexplored,” she says.
And the very moment the notion of printing any mention of prostitution comes up, concerns at the New York Times are expressed. “We’ve had some real discussions about it,” says Ryan. “Obviously we have been very restrained and kind of minimally mentioned it.”
Boyle, for his part, cautions against all the caution: “I don’t think that there’s a mass conspiracy by the media, but they still don’t fully get it,” he argues. “The prostitution part of this story is inseparable and inextricably linked to the rest of the story. The prostitution and the parties were another form of cozying up to Washington politicians.”