When New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez was charged with corruption two months ago, even the liberal media couldn’t resist showing images of the damning horde of cash and gold bars found in Menendez’s New Jersey home.
Yet six years ago, the networks had a chance to properly report on Senator Menendez’s alleged corruption during an earlier federal trial, and they blew it. At the time, NewsBusters documented how ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN buried the embarrassing (for Democrats) trial detailing how Menendez accepted extravagant gifts and travel, in exchange for federal favors.
That trial ended in a mistrial six years ago this week (November 16, 2017), but the lack of a decisive verdict in November does not excuse the media for ignoring the trial in September and October. If the tawdry details had been given proper exposure at the time, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not Menendez would have been re-elected in 2018 and thus have had the opportunity to commit the new acts for which he’s currently criminally charged.
When Menendez was first indicted in a completely different matter (in April 2015), the networks initially gave that case a fairly decent amount of coverage. As ABC’s David Wright explained on Good Morning America, a Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen (who would later be convicted on 67 counts of Medicare fraud), “used the Senator as sort of a personal errand boy on Capitol Hill….In exchange, according to the indictment, the Senator accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds from Melgen, plus lavish Caribbean holidays, deluxe hotel rooms in Paris and expensive trips on board the doctor’s private jet.”
By the time the trial began on September 6, 2017, even MSNBC admitted Menendez’s conduct looked indefensible. “The case against Menendez as a legal matter doesn’t look close, it looks overwhelming,” The Beat’s Ari Melber argued that night.
Yet by then, the broadcast networks had apparently decided they weren’t interested in exposing viewers to the Democratic scandal. ABC and NBC skipped the first day of arguments entirely, while CBS This Morning gave it a minuscule 22 second preview (and nothing on that night’s Evening News).
Over on FNC’s Special Report, however, correspondent David Lee Miller relayed: “During opening statements, the prosecution told the jury that is part of the bribery scheme, Menendez sent the doctor an e-mail asking him to provide a $1,500 a night Paris hotel room with a limestone bath and a view of the courtyard.”
By September 27, the trial had been going on for three weeks, and the lack of liberal media coverage was glaring. MRC Research Analyst Mike Ciandella found just seven stories on CNN from September 5-26. Yet in 2008, he found, CNN had churned out far more coverage of a similar trial for a Republican, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (36 stories in a similar time period, a nearly six-to-one disparity).
The next day (September 28), prosecutors exposed how Menendez had attempted to manipulate a port security arrangement to benefit his benefactor, Dr. Melgen, but only Fox News viewers heard about it. Correspondent Brian Llenas on that night’s Special Report explained: “The prosecution alleges Senator Menendez trying to get the Dominican Republic government to use Melgen’s port security equipment and to reject a U.S. donation of screening equipment in the process.” As NewsBuster’s Nick Fondacaro faithfully documented, ABC, CBS and NBC skipped the news; so did CNN.
On October 11, the prosecution rested; ABC, CBS and NBC paid no attention. The following Monday, the judge denied Menendez request to dismiss the case; once again, there was no interest from the broadcast networks. On November 2, the lawyers delivered their closing arguments. “This is what bribery looks like,” federal prosecutor J.P. Cooney declared. Again, the network evening newscasts revealed none of it.
As the jury deliberated, the media scorecard stood as follows: just 1 minute, 48 seconds on ABC (all a single Good Morning America piece on September 13, a week into the trial); 22 seconds on CBS (a quick tease on CBS This Morning on September 6 announcing the start of the trial); and nothing at all on NBC’s morning and evening news programs.
Then on November 9, the Washington Post reported allegations that Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore had fondled underage girls when he was in his 30s. Contrary to their reluctance to cover courtroom evidence against a sitting Democratic Senator, the networks raced to report media allegations against a Republican candidate. In just 24 hours, MRC’s Ciandella documented, ABC, CBS and NBC had cranked out 12 times more coverage of the allegations against Moore (24 minutes, 36 seconds) than they had spent on the entire Menendez trial during the preceding 10 weeks (just 2 minutes, 10 seconds).
Then-White House advisor Kellyanne Conway noted the double standard when she was badgered about Moore by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on This Week on November 12: “We, already in this conversation, have probably spent more time talking about Roy Moore and this, than we have talked about a Democratic United States Senator who’s sitting in a federal courthouse as a criminal defendant in a trial, has been indicted on some serious criminal counts, and we can’t get coverage on it.”
Only after the judge declared a mistrial on November 16 did the network evening newscasts finally spare a little airtime for the Democratic scandal. ABC’s World News Tonight gave it 19 seconds; the NBC Nightly News, just 22 seconds. The CBS Evening News, which hadn’t said a word about the evidence during the trial, offered up 1 minute, 50 seconds, casting Menendez as vindicated.
“Supporters cheered as Senator Robert Menendez stepped to the podium to blast government prosecutors,” correspondent Anna Werner touted. Later on, she added: “Menendez had one more thing to say as he heads back to Washington. He said, ‘To those who were digging my political grave so you could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”
But while the jury couldn’t find agreement, Menendez did receive a unanimous guilty verdict the following April, when both the Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Ethics Committee agreed that he had violated Senate rules regarding the gifts he had received from Dr. Melgen, and then “used your position as a Member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen’s personal and business interests.” The bipartisan group upbraided Menendez in a “Public Letter of Admonishment” saying his actions brought “discredit upon the Senate.”
Yet none of the three networks mentioned any of this on their April 26, 2018 broadcasts. Let’s hope they do a more complete job when the next Menendez trial gets underway. It’s currently scheduled for May 6, 2024.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.