Why Joseph Menn’s handling of the Beto story was worse than the National Enquirer

By this time, I’m confident that most of you have already heard about the revelation that former Congressman and current presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was a member of the notorious Cult of the Dead Cow hacker group. That should have been a spectacular enough headline on its own, but the more we learn about the reporter who broke the story for Reuters, Joseph Menn, the more questions arise. The main issue here is Menn’s claim that he’d not only been working on the story for more than two years, but had gotten O’Rourke himself to admit it in 2017.

Reuters confirms this information in a brief piece this weekend covering the backstory of this reporting and how it evolved.

Within minutes, his special report was the most popular story on Reuters.com here and was picked up by other news outlets. But the origin of the story goes back more than two years.

Members of the group, which calls itself Cult of the Dead Cow, protected O’Rourke’s secret for decades, reluctant to compromise the former Texas Congressman’s political career.

After more than a year of reporting, Menn persuaded O’Rourke to talk on the record. In an interview in late 2017, O’Rourke acknowledged that he was a member of the group, on the understanding that the information would not be made public until after his Senate race against Ted Cruz in November 2018.

Why that last sentence hasn’t been the entire focus of the reporting on this subject is a mystery to me. If you are a reporter for Reuters and you find out that a sitting member of Congress – not to mention a contender in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country – used to belong to a criminal organization, how in the world do you justify agreeing to remain silent about it? We also need to know whether or not Menn’s editor at Reuters knew about this. The article mentions an interview with editor Jane Lee but is silent on the underlying question. Menn himself took to Twitter to offer what he seems to feel passes for an explanation.

Excuse me, but it was “not for your day job?” If a firefighter is out for a drive on her day off and notices flames shooting out of the upper story of a house, does she just keep driving because she’s not out there doing her “day job?”

Here’s the thing. Menn was sitting on information that would have been valuable to voters in a key Senate race. Prior to that, it was information about a current member of the House of Representatives. Most importantly, he’d gotten O’Rourke to admit to it. Reporters make agreements with sources all the time that involve not disclosing their identity. What they don’t do is agree to bury a story and hide that information from the public to benefit one contender over another in an election.

Menn could have published the story, or spoken to his editor and had someone else do it if his leave of absence to work on his book was so important. If he had agreed not to reveal the identity of any of his sources (including O’Rourke himself) he could have attributed it to an anonymous source or something said on background and let others put the question to the candidate on the record. Did he keep his secret to help O’Rourke or to make sure the bombshell dropped at the optimal moment to boost his book sales? Neither paints a very savory picture.

The National Enquirer was accused (and perhaps rightly so) of buying and burying information about Donald Trump to keep the information from the public. They called it “catch and kill.” Menn may or may not have been trying shield Beto O’Rourke from electoral repercussions, but his stated reason was even worse. He specifically agreed to hide the information from the public until after the election. Whether it was to give a bigger bang to the release of his book or to shield O’Rourke from criticism doesn’t matter.

If the National Enquirer was guilty of “catch and kill,” what Menn did was “catch and hold hostage.” It wasn’t the same as what the National Enquirer did. It was worse. At least the Enquirer allegedly had a motive in burying certain negative stories. They were trying to “help” someone, even if that someone was Donald Trump. They never intended for those stories to see the light of day. Menn doesn’t even reach that extremely low bar in terms of ethics. He sat on a story that might have played a crucial role in a Senate campaign, knowing he was going to personally profit from it when his book came out.

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