I became well acquainted with political spin during the many years I covered New York City politics as a newspaper reporter. Yet, even with that background, I've been a little dizzied by the brazenness of what the spin doctors have been dishing up this year in the race for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey. The story raises important issues for the practice of journalism.
As a cub reporter at a small New Jersey newspaper more than a quarter-century ago, I chronicled the last hurrah of a local political boss who was famously reelected mayor of Union City the day after he was sentenced to seven years in prison for taking payoffs. The late Bill Musto, last of the New Jersey bosses who could trace their political lineage to Frank ("I am the Law") Hague, was, on one level, a most compassionate man. He counseled constituents all day long, and many of them loved him. He was a powerful, respected state senator, and New Jersey's senior legislator. But Musto also took bribes from a local construction company controlled by the mafia.
A subplot in the story of Musto's downfall has recently emerged in the race for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, a seat that has been in the Democratic column, which national Republican strategists hope to gain in a close battle for control of the Senate. Robert Menendez, the Democrat appointed to the vacant Senate seat in January by Governor Jon Corzine, was the twenty-four-year-old secretary of the Union City Board of Education in 1978 when he noticed that the board's president had slipped through huge cost overruns to a builder doing school construction. Menendez insisted that the board vote on these overruns, which forced the matter into the open. I wrote about the overruns and the bogus reason given for issuing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments. Later, Menendez assisted federal prosecutors in their investigation of the overruns, which, it turned out, were used to fund payoffs and not school construction.
Menendez performed honorably, testifying numerous times in secret before a grand jury, and later in public at the trial. It took a personal toll, since Menendez had to break the political machine's code of loyalty and turn against Musto, whom many said was like a father to him. Menendez took a risk in testifying because, as reported at the time, the construction company in question had been controlled by a mafioso suspected of being a hit man. The prosecutors were surprised to get such help from Menendez, who was not implicated or even suspected in the wrongdoing, and they praised him privately and in public.
So I was surprised when Thomas Kean Jr., the Republican candidate for the Senate who is opposing Menendez, twisted the story to make it seem as if Menendez had been part of the kickback scheme and had testified only to save himself from prosecution. It was false--a smear--and some of the "facts" used by Kean, the son of New Jersey's popular former governor and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, were just wrong.
Of course, Menendez's campaign quickly pointed this out, but local newspapers treated Kean's accusations in the time-honored way: reporting piecemeal what the two sides said and letting the readers decide for themselves. Had I known nothing about the story, I might well have reported it the same way.
I wrote a freelance story in the Newark Star-Ledger that explained, as best I could, what really happened, based on what I had reported years before for the Hudson Dispatch and the Associated Press, and on follow-up interviews. On the same day, the New York Times covered similar ground in a story that originated when a Republican operative made the mistake of contacting the best reporter I know, Jim Dwyer, to try to interview him for a "documentary" about Menendez. Dwyer, who followed me on the Union City beat for the Dispatch, quickly determined that the filmmaker was affiliated with the Kean campaign. He wrote a story in which …