Aren’t reporters supposed to nail facts down for the public? On Tuesday’s NBC Nightly News, reporter Chip Reid explored the U.S. Senate race in New Jersey, but could not explain to viewers whether or not Sen. Bob Menendez is under federal investigation. "It’s not entirely clear who’s right," Reid claimed. As Menendez denounced Republican opponent Tom Kean Jr. for "the politics of smear," Reid seemed unable to declare a basic fact local media outlets have repeated for weeks: federal investigators subpoenaed a Menendez tenant’s leasing agreement with Menendez. NBC doesn’t even seem to trust its own New York affiliate WNBC to locate the facts, even though it broke the subpoena story in September.
In the NBC story, Menendez called Kean a "liar." But on September 9 (on page B-6 of the paper), The New York Times reported:
Federal prosecutors are reportedly examining the records of a nonprofit community agency in Hudson County that paid more than $300,000 in rent to Senator Robert Menendez while also getting millions of dollars in federal grants with Mr. Menendez's help.
WNBC-TV and The Star-Ledger of Newark reported on Thursday that the United States attorney's office had issued subpoenas to the agency, the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, in Union City, this week. A spokesman for the United States attorney declined to confirm or deny those reports on Friday, and repeated attempts to reach the North Hudson Community Action Corporation were unsuccessful.
But Mr. Menendez, speaking on Friday at the annual convention of the Democratic State Committee in Atlantic City, criticized the timing of the subpoenas as being politically motivated, and repeated his earlier assertions that he did nothing either illegal or unethical in renting the house to the agency for use as office space.
An investigation is just that: only an investigation. It’s obvious that a politician whose business dealings come under federal investigation during an election year should not be presumed guilty until proven innocent. But Menendez is playing word games now, insisting that because he did not personally receive a subpoena, it’s a "lie" to suggest he is under investigation, as federal investigators look into his leasing agreements.
But there’s one reason for NBC to play dumb or confused along with the Democrat: the scandal allegations are hurting the Democrat at the polls and in fundraising. The polls are tight or tied, and Menendez fundraising was slow in the third quarter of the year. As Reid explained, New Jersey Democrats thought this race would be much easier to win:
Chip Reid: "It wasn't supposed to be this difficult. Democrat Bob Menendez was appointed to an open U.S. Senate seat in January. The thinking then was that his long experience in New Jersey politics and a fat campaign bank account would carry him to victory in November in this heavily Democratic state. But Tom Kean Jr., who rarely mentions he's a Republican, has used his family name -- his father is the popular former governor of New Jersey -- and a relentless attack on Menendez's ethics to turn this race into a toss-up."
Clip of Kean ad: "Listen carefully to Bob Menendez's top lieutenant pressuring a doctor in a Menendez kickback scheme."
Audio of tape: "The only reason I stuck my nose in this Ruiz thing is because Menendez asked me to do it."
Kean stated the facts: "Clearly, Bob Menendez's financial records are under investigation by the U.S. attorney. That's clear."
Reid: "Mincing no words, Menendez calls Kean a liar, insisting there's no evidence he's under investigation, though it's not entirely clear who's right."
Reid to Menendez: "What's your response when he says that kind of stuff?"
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), at a fair: "You know, it's the politics of smear, the politics of personal destruction."
Reid: "And while his early ads were on issues, now Menendez is firing back."
Clip of ad: "Kean Jr. conspired with a convicted felon to smear Bob Menendez."
Reid spent a few seconds on the issues in the race, mostly Iraq, but both Reid and Williams lamented "the issues" were missing. That's the pot calling the kettle black, since NBC (and Reid) have been relentlessly covering the Mark Foley sex-talk scandal for weeks. Reid concluded:
"Political analysts, though, say the debate on issues has mostly been drowned out by the deafening drumbeat of negative ads. This race has become one of the most closely watched in the nation. Not just because it's so tight, and not just because it's so nasty, but also because of the role it could play in determining which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. Now, some Democrats are worried that their long-shot plan to take control could be foiled by one of their own. Chip Reid, NBC News, Newark, New Jersey."
One argument the Republicans have used against the Menendez who-me-under-investigation ploy is to remind the viewers what Menendez said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos on September 24:
Stephanopoulos: "But this is being investigated by the U.S. Attorney here. There is a federal investigation."
Senator Menendez: "We welcome it and we look forward to its successful conclusion."
Menendez is not actually welcoming it now. He's suggesting it's a smear to suggest there is an investigation. Debates about candidate ethics can get complicated, which is a real challenge for a two-minute TV report. But NBC and Reid didn’t make the charges clearer for viewers. They threw up their hands and suggested nobody knows basic facts, and maybe the Republicans are running a "smear machine," as Menendez said to ABC. If NBC couldn’t locate the basic facts on this story, they had the obvious recourse any media outlet that care about the facts has. They could have (and should have) waited another day or another week until they could understand the facts for themselves.