Shortly before the 2012 elections, a conservative media outlet called The Daily Caller, created by Tucker Carlson, thought it had a major scoop. The far-right website claimed it had obtained evidence that Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) paid for sex in the Dominican Republic. Conservative media, not surprisingly, pounced.
They soon regretted it. The Daily Caller’s report was based on flimsy evidence, and soon after, the allegations unraveled completely – three Dominican escorts eventually admitted they were paid to lie. The salacious story, to the great disappointment of the right, wasn’t true, and conservative media’s demands for respect and credibility had taken a big step backwards.
But a question lingered in the background: what was the origin of the smear? It seemed unlikely The Daily Caller would just make it up out of whole cloth; there had to be a source for the lies. The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Manuel Roig-Franzia are now able to shed some additional light on the subject.
Sen. Robert Menendez is asking the Justice Department to pursue evidence obtained by U.S. investigators that the Cuban government concocted an elaborate plot to smear him with allegations that he cavorted with underage prostitutes, according to people familiar with the discussions.In a letter sent to Justice Department officials, the senator’s attorney asserts that the plot was timed to derail the political rise of Menendez (D-N.J.), one of Washington’s most ardent critics of the Castro regime…. According to a former U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of government intelligence, the CIA had obtained credible evidence, including Internet protocol addresses, linking Cuban agents to the prostitution claims and to efforts to plant the story in U.S. and Latin American media.
Every major media organization occasionally makes mistakes. Every news outlet sometimes has to run corrections. Everyone in journalism has, at some point in their careers, run a report they later regret.
But very few U.S. outlets earn the “We were a mouthpiece for Castro’s communist regime” label.
Conservative media has struggled badly in recent years, and really didn’t need another black eye, but it appears to have a new one anyway. The list of humiliating setbacks isn’t short: conservative media took “skewed polls” and “Friends of Hamas” seriously. Many in conservative media were caught up in payola controversies.
Conservative media ran reports about Obama’s non-existent library using Reagan’s childhood home as a parking lot. And said Hillary Clinton may have been faking a concussion. And uncritically ran with all kinds of strange conspiracy theories about Benghazi, the IRS “scandal,” Fast & Furious, imaginary voter fraud, birth certificates, ACORN, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And yet, The Daily Caller allegedly running propaganda for Castro somehow seems worse. If this new reporting holds up, it’s the kind of credibility-killing development from which there may be no recovery.
Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder whether Tucker Carlson’s outlet has inadvertently created a model other governments might want to take advantage of. Are you an anti-American despot, eager to smear a Democratic official in the U.S.? Frustrated by all these American media organizations that insist on scrutinizing stories for accuracy? Take comfort in knowing that there are still some news organizations that will take your tip from abroad seriously, whether it’s true or not, so long as it might make a Democrat look bad.