Media failed to note scandal-prone Sen. Martinez's habit of blaming his staff

Already the focus of intense media scrutiny, the Senate memo promoting the potential political benefits to Republicans of the Terri Schiavo case garnered further news coverage late in the day on April 6, when freshman Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) acknowledged publicly that one of his aides had produced the document. In covering this scandal, however, the media has largely ignored Martinez's history of blaming staffers for other controversies during his Senate campaign.

Prior to the 2004 Florida senatorial primaries, Martinez's campaign mailed fliers to voters that referred to his Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, as “the new darling of the homosexual extremists,” a reference to McCollum's support for federal hate-crime legislation. After Martinez won the primary, he apologized to McCollum for the smear, blaming it on “a couple of young turks” in his campaign. Miami Herald reporter Michael Putney wrote in a September 22, 2004, article:

''We made mistakes,'' Martinez told me after a news conference on the banks of the Miami River. ''A couple of young turks in my campaign went further than they should have. They didn't even have to do it, for gosh sake, we were ahead at that point. But I'm totally responsible for what happened, and I regret it.'' He added that his smearing of McCollum doesn't accurately reflect ''who I am or what I stand for.''

During the subsequent general election campaign against Democrat Betty Castor, a former school superintendent, Martinez's campaign attacked former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who was campaigning for Castor, claiming that Reno's Justice Department had used “armed thugs” to seize Cuban refugee Elián González and send him back to Cuba, thereby "'allowing Fidel Castro to have his way." Martinez apologized again after it was noted that he had previously featured one of the federal agents involved in the Gonzalez raid in a campaign ad attacking Castor as “soft” on terrorism. In apologizing to the agent, Martinez again placed the blame on his staff. According to an October 13, 2004, Miami Herald article (registration required):

“The comment is a nonissue for me,” added [former immigration officer Bill] West, who said the Martinez campaign told him the “armed thugs” wording had been a mistake by a staffer. “The whole Elián González operation is history. The operation went as well as possible.”

And most recently, Martinez acknowledged that one of his senior aides, Brian Darling, “was unilaterally responsible” for the memo lauding the Terri Schiavo case as “a great political issue” for Republicans because “the pro-life base will be excited” and it “is a tough issue for Democrats.” Martinez also stated that the memo “was not approved by me or any other member of my staff, nor were we aware of its existence until very recently.”

In spite of this pattern -- covering three significant scandals in less than a year -- most major media outlets outside of Florida failed to report that Darling represents only the latest Martinez aide to be blamed for a controversy surrounding the senator. As of this posting, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, United Press International, CBS News, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and CNN all featured stories on the Martinez memo, but none noted Martinez's pattern of blaming scandals on aides.

An April 7 Cox News Service article quoted Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, observing this pattern:

“This is not the first time [Sen. Martinez] has engaged in this kind of activity,” Singer said, adding that “the first time it's an accident, the second time it's a coincidence, the third time it's a pattern. This is the third time where Sen. Martinez seems to pass the buck to someone on his staff and say, 'It's not me, it's not me.' ”

The Cox article did not describe the instances in which Martinez placed blame on his staffers, writing instead: “During Martinez's Senate campaign last year -- in the GOP primary and the general election -- there were several instances when he distanced himself from statements and actions of key aides.”

The Washington Times also covered Martinez's controversial past in an April 8 article. In revisiting Martinez's scandals, however, the Times shifted all blame to the staffers. The article, titled “Freewheeling aides have shamed Martinez before,” reported:

The revelation that a staffer for Sen. Mel Martinez added a political strategy point to a memo on the merits of a bill to save Terri Schiavo's life is not the first time that the Florida Republican has been embarrassed by freelancing aides.

The Times noted Martinez's attack on McCollum but attempted to exonerate Martinez himself, reporting that a “source familiar with the 2004 campaign said that both the campaign-mailer incident and the Schiavo memo speak more to Mr. Martinez's easygoing management style than an attempt to use the case of Mrs. Schiavo.” To accentuate that point, the Times quoted the anonymous source as saying: “Mel never gets the whole truth.”

In contrast to the national media, Florida newspapers, which covered Martinez extensively during his Senate campaign, have made much of Martinez's pattern of blaming his staffers. An April 8 Miami Herald article noted that, “for the third time, Martinez finds himself under fire -- and blaming an aide for the conflagration.” An April 8 Orlando Sentinel editorial referenced the McCollum incident, noting: “the current furor over the memo is a disturbing echo of another controversial incident involving Mr. Martinez just last year.” The St. Petersburg Times, which last year rescinded its endorsement of Martinez for the Republican nomination for the Senate after the McCollum attack, ran an April 8 article that revisited Martinez's blaming of staffers for the McCollum and Reno attacks before writing: “Now it has happened again.”