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Conservative media keeps stumbling, falling

Just a few days before Election Day 2012, The Daily Caller, a far-right outlet created by Tucker Carlson, ran with an exclusive scoop: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.
Tucker Carlson
Tucker Carlson

Just a few days before Election Day 2012, The Daily Caller, a far-right outlet created by Tucker Carlson, ran with an exclusive scoop: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), running for re-election, had allegedly paid for sex in the Dominican Republic. Other conservative media outlets immediately pounced on the story, finding it entirely credible.

Even at the time, there was ample room for skepticism, not just because of the convenient timing of the report or the sketchy reputation of Carlson's outlet, but because, as Mariah Blake noted, the "controversy" appeared to be based on non-existent evidence.

Late yesterday, the allegations completely unraveled.

An escort who appeared on a video claiming that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) paid her for sex has told Dominican authorities that she was instead paid to make up the claims and has never met or seen the senator, according to court documents and two people briefed on her claim.The woman said a local lawyer had approached her and a fellow escort and asked them to help frame Menendez and a top donor, Salomon Melgen, according to affidavits obtained by The Washington Post.That lawyer has in turn identified a second Dominican lawyer who he said gave the woman a script and paid her to read the claims aloud. The first lawyer said he found out only later that the remarks would be videotaped and used against Menendez, the affidavits say.

It's also worth noting that the FBI went to the Dominican Republic to investigate, but also found no evidence to support the allegations.

We do not yet know who paid the woman to lie, or why the scheme was cooked up, though it's hardly a stretch to think campaign politics had something to do with it. We also don't yet know why The Daily Caller, which has earned a reputation for lax standards, published the reports, or how much the outlet knew about the veracity of the claims. (The writer who first published the story, Matthew Boyle, has since moved on to ... wait for it ...

What's more, The Daily Caller this morning said the woman who is now recanting her story "does not appear to be one of the women we interviewed."

And it's at this moment when those involved in conservative media might want to pause, take a deep breath, and look in the mirror for a long while.

Erick Erickson complained the other day, "I think conservative media is failing to advance ideas and stories." I think he's right, but it's probably also fair to note that conservative media is failing to apply any meaningful journalistic standards to anything they do.

The point isn't that one news organization or another will not sometimes make mistakes; I've run my share of corrections myself over the last decade. Rather, the point is that there are serious institutional flaws in conservative media that encourage and perpetuate ideologically-driven mistakes.

I'd encourage those involved in conservative media -- or just as importantly, those who rely on conservative media as reliable sources of accurate news and analysis -- to start asking some basic questions. How many of you took "Skewed Polls" seriously? How about "Friends of Hamas"? How many felt embarrassed running with Bob Woodward's recent claims about White House threats? How many ran paid propaganda from the Malaysian government?

How many ran reports about Obama's non-existent library using Reagan's childhood home as a parking lot? How many said Hillary Clinton may have been faking a concussion? How many uncritically ran with strange conspiracy theories about Benghazi, Fast & Furious, imaginary voter fraud, birth certificates, ACORN, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

There's something rotten in conservative media, and it's time those involved in it to start making an effort to put things right.

At the same time, it's also time for everyone else to start treating the conservative media's scoops with more skepticism. I still look back with amazement at this Washington Post item from 2009, when the paper's then-ombudsman questioned whether major news organizations were failing to appreciate the "news" right-wing activists considered important.

Soon after, the New York Times' public editor reported that Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, and Bill Keller, the executive editor, had agreed to consciously focus attention on "bubbling controversies" that originated in conservative media.

Here's hoping, in light of recent developments, those decisions are being reconsidered in a new light.