The Washington Post released on its website yesterday afternoon an article by Manuel Roig-Franzia that has to rank as one of the more disgraceful pieces of personal hit journalism in memory—alleging that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio “embellished” the facts surrounding the departure of his parents from Cuba. You can judge for yourself by the piece itself and the devastating takedown of it by the Miami Herald‘s Marc Caputo. I just want to offer a few thoughts, based on years working in newsrooms, of how a piece like Roig-Franzia’s comes to be and why it is usually published even when it fails to make its own case.

The Post article is, in one respect, the result of classic reportorial cynicism. A politician gets popular and tells a self-made story and seems unimpeachable as a result and somebody is just desperate to bring him down a peg. That can be the reporter who does it, or the source who feeds him the idea. Given that Rubio is a conservative Republican Hispanic, the fact that he has dodged the bullet of being given the traitor-to-his-own-people-by-being-right-wing treatment through the modality of a journalistic assault until now is actually remarkable.

But what happens when, as in this case, the story doesn’t quite pan out? Clearly the intention behind the story was to explode the myth that Rubio was the son of people who actively fled Castro’s tyranny. But Rubio never propagated that myth, as the Miami Herald item makes clear, and the best Roig-Franzia can do is to imply that Rubio wanted people to think his parents were refugees.

But he fails to make that case either, given that the only evidence he supplies is that Rubio once said his parents came in 1959 when, in fact, they came in 1956. Given that Castro didn’t actually take Havana until New Year’s Eve 1959, hours before the year 1960 began, no one but an eager anti-Rubio partisan would find what he said deliberately deceptive.

Caputo of the Miami Herald says Rubio is sloppy—but why should he even be blamed for not being able to cite the details? (I know, for example, that my grandmother came over to the United States in 1920, because she spoke of the journey incessantly; but I can’t for the life of me remember what years my two grandfathers came over, even though I spoke to them about it, one of them many times, and have even looked up the records on the Ellis Island manifests. And I have a terrific memory. And even though she wrote an autobiography in which she writes about these matters in detail, I can’t quite summon up the dates of my mother’s peregrinations from Minnesota to New York to Queens to Manhattan in the 15 years before I was born.)

What the story does not even attempt to disprove is that the elder Rubios came to the United States for economic reasons and ended up staying because of the Cuban revolution—indeed, Rubio’s mother went back to Cuba after Castro’s takeover and was able to make it back to the U.S. once she saw what she was in for What Rubio told Roig-Franzia was this: “They were from Cuba. They wanted to live in Cuba again. They tried to live in Cuba again, and the reality of what it was made that impossible.” That quote should have put a spike through the story. Instead, it’s on the Post’s front page and is being turned into assault ads by Florida Democrats.

I think it’s clear Roig-Franzia began the story, and talked his editors into giving him time on the story, because in his preliminary study of the details he thought he had the goods to deflate the Rubio balloon. Maybe this was ideological; maybe it was something else; I don’t know him and his work has made little impression on me before and besides, I don’t really care. The real problem with investigative journalism, and one of the reasons there isn’t as much of it as its partisans so desperately desire, is that it often doesn’t pan out. You get a tip, you spend weeks trying to make sense of it, and it turns out there’s less there than meets the eye. I’ve seen it happen on numerous occasions. I have had to edit such investigations in my time, and through the process, they more often than not crumbled away into a series of inferences, suggestions, and implications.

So weeks of a reporter’s time were lost, and hours of meeting time were wasted, and often expenses in the tens of thousands of dollars were incurred…for nothing.

You can see, then, why it is that a newspaper would basically try to make lemonade out of such lemons by publishing something—especially, it has to be said, when the effort involves taking down a Republican or a conservative. What gets published, and what got published in this case, is irresponsible, unfair to the subject, and a betrayal of the reader who isn’t paying close enough attention to see how weak the story is. But in 2011, good or bad, fair or unfair, a hit job on Marco Rubio sure will generate lots and lots of Tweets. It will also generate more of the cynicism about journalism so many non-journalists feel, and heighten the disgust for liberal bias that animates so much conservative activism.

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