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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Media screwed up big time on smear of Senator Menendez

In an age when an unproven accusation can spread like wildfire on the Internet, too many media outlets are guilty of repeating shoddy information that damages reputations. That’s what happened to New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. 

It started when The Daily Caller, a conservative website, publicized a story shortly before election day citing confidential sources that the Democrat had sex parties with underage hookers after flying to the Dominican Republic on the private jet of a wealthy doctor. Never mind that the women and the man in the accusatory video weren’t identified and they offer no proof beyond their words (which later turned out worthless).

Then similar accusations were echoed by government watchdog the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, citing emails from a supposed “whistle blower” Peter Williams. Never mind that they didn’t meet Williams, or verify that he’d be in position to know such things about the senator. 

The story got picked up by mainstream media – nearly all national outlets and many local newspapers. Did these outlets talk to the supposed prostitutes? Did they verify the story from their own sources? No.

None of them explicitly said Menendez was guilty, but being accused of adultery, pedophilia and political corruption are damning labels. This had to hurt Menendez not just professionally, but in his personal life.

Now it turns out the story is BS. Police in the Dominican Republic say the supposed prostitutes in the video were paid to lie about the senator. They actually have never met him. Now the tone of the stories has shifted to “Who Framed Senator Bob Menendez” and “Official Seeks Mystery Man Linked to ‘Smear’of Senator Bob Menendez.”

Hello? Where was that self-righteousness at these same media outlets when they allowed themselves to be the mouthpieces of that smear campaign? 

Anyone can accuse people of horrible things, but that doesn’t mean the media has to repeat those allegations and drag people through the mud. That is especially true when the person making the accusation hides behind a wall of secrecy. The credibility of the source, and whether they’ll survive public scrutiny, must always be considered. 

 I’ve been told many shocking things about individuals and companies that I haven’t released in my paper. Why? Either because I couldn’t verify it, there was enough doubt in my mind that I didn’t feel reasonably certain it was true, the source had too much of an ax to grind for me to base my trust on them alone, or I felt that the accusation, while interesting, was too personal and not fit for a business audience. 

I know that my paper picks up stories from other outlets. I’m not comfortable quoting a story based on confidential sources that aren’t my own. That’s what the mainstream media did wrong with Senator Menendez’s case. They based their reporting on confidential sources The Daily Caller and CREW had, and even they apparently haven’t confirmed the identity of those sources. 

Who is that guy in the video with the hookers? We don’t know. But he looks trustworthy. Let’s take his word that this senator slept with them. 

And then they trusted emails to CREW, not directly to their media outlets, by a guy who may not even be using his real name. I get plenty of tips from anonymous emailers and, while I might follow up to verify them by other means, I’d never use them as a source in a story. Yet, these mainstream media outlets did that with second hand emails. That was terrible judgment.

Part of the problem is media peer pressure. One paper might be sitting on a story they aren’t sure of, then a competitor reports it with shoddy sourcing. All of a sudden, the first paper has to match them. And from there it spreads, true or not. Few have the courage to sit there with their arms crossed and refuse to publish a story they don’t believe in.

Of course, Senator Menendez has no real recourse for this smear campaign. If he could find the guy in the video who paid the girls to lie – and whoever set him up to it – he’d probably have a claim, but the media that irresponsibly picked up the shoddy story won’t pay for it. The libel laws allow you to saw pretty much anything about the public figure and, as long as you didn’t know it’s a total lie when you said it, they can can't do much about it. 

However, there is another price that the media pays, and we all pay it equally. It’s a loss of credibility.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you Brian. That's why I read only one or two newspapers that I find credible. They may not be popular, but they have genuine news on genuine issues; and not crap on people's personal lives or celeb-bashing or writing frivolous stuff about frivolous people.Popular newspapers usually lie...most of their news is full lies. The newspapers you mention are still in circulation..because the public doesn't have a sense of discrimination between truth and lies; rationality and nonsense.Well written.Write more on this topic of misuse of media.