The relative restraint with which the mainstream press handled prostitution allegations vexed conservative media watchdogs like the Media Research Center.

Then, in mid-February, something shifted. First, on Friday, February 15, the Post splashed a juicy headline across its site: “FBI Probing Allegations Sen. Menendez Patronized Prostitutes In Dominican Republic.” The following day, a variation of the story ran on page one of the paper. The probe had been public for weeks by this point. The Post added no new information on the prostitution front, except that the FBI had sent agents to the Dominican Republic to interview witnesses, and that it had “found no evidence to support the claim.” Some might argue that the FBI failing to substantiate unsubstantiated allegations, especially of the sort that can destroy a person’s reputation, is hardly grounds for rehashing them on A1. But other outlets followed suit, including Politico and The Hill, which ran pieces based on the Post’s reporting; the following Monday, CBS aired its segment, which “confirmed” an investigation was underway.

Most of these reports explained that the FBI had found little or no evidence to support the prostitution allegations. But the bold-face headlines hyping an official probe gave these claims new credibility; meanwhile, the better-founded allegations about Menendez using his influence to benefit a major donor became B-matter.

The shift in tone since has been palpable. While there have been few new developments in the case, over the last two weeks the mainstream press has run dozens of stories, columns, and blog posts about Menendez’s plummeting approval ratings, his response to the scandal, and the potential fallout. Most toss in the prostitution allegations with little or no context. “Unsubstantiated” has morphed into “allegedly”—as in, “Menendez is in hot water for flying to the Dominican Republic with Melgen, allegedly to visit prostitutes,” full stop. Rather than tell the backstory, many journalists mention offhandedly that Menendez “has denied” the allegations—or, worse, link to The Daily Caller report.

Those who do set the allegations in context find themselves in a thorny predicament. CNN recently sent Drew Griffin to Santo Domingo to investigate the Menendez affair. After knocking on the door of a brothel, which presumably has some connection to the Menendez case—and having it shut in his face—Griffin explains that no one, including the FBI, has been able to confirm the anonymous emailer’s account:

It appeared the matter was pretty much dropped until more emails began arriving. The author, someone calling himself Peter Williams, even wrote to a CNN reporter last month… CNN responded asking Peter Williams to meet us anywhere, even here in Santo Domingo, to give us proof that any of his allegations were true. We have since sent six emails to P. Williams. The response? Silence.

It’s a striking moment of journalistic candor. Griffin is essentially telling viewers that the allegations, which had been dismissed as unfounded, were later deemed worthy of coverage—merely because they kept circulating. Never mind that the evidence was (in CNN’s words) “skimpy” or that the tipster’s MO had only grown shadier.

At another point in the segment, Griffin pointedly wonders whether the sexual allegations could 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.” Good question. Maybe he should have asked it before banging on a brothel door with a camera crew in tow.


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Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.