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Correction to This Article
A Media Notes item in the April 2 Style section misstated the circumstances under which 71 employees left the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is under new ownership. The employees were laid off; they did not take early retirement.
The Story You Can't And Can Put Down

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007

It is a story that husbands and wives keep arguing about, that has mesmerized people who don't give a fig about politics, that stirs the passions of anyone who has ever been touched by cancer -- which is to say, just about everyone.

In the 11 days since John and Elizabeth Edwards told the world they would continue with his presidential campaign despite her diagnosis of incurable cancer, the former senator has drawn far more media attention than in the months when he struggled for visibility against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Some pundits are questioning whether John Edwards is so consumed by ambition that he is unable to put his wife and young children first. Others are cheering Elizabeth Edwards for her determination not to abandon their cause, and praising the way the couple have handled their medical crisis.

It is the latest reminder, if any were needed, that running for president (and first lady) is above all an intensely personal experience. Edwards never got on "60 Minutes" by talking about his plan to raise taxes to pay for national health insurance, and he never got a People magazine spread by apologizing for his vote to authorize the Iraq war. In fact, when Edwards announced his candidacy in December, he drew modest coverage, with most major newspapers running inside stories (The Washington Post was one exception), and CBS and ABC briefly mentioning the announcement on their evening newscasts.

A presidential candidate whose wife faced the possibility of an early death would be a compelling story in any era. But at this early stage of the 2008 race, the media have been unusually focused on marriages.

The Bill-and-Hillary union may be the most scrutinized of modern times, and there has been plenty of chatter this time about what role the former president will play in her campaign and, potentially, as First Spouse. ("Big question for Hillary: What will Bill's impact be?" USA Today asked last week.) This saga began 15 years ago, when the little-known Arkansas governor appeared on "60 Minutes," with his wife, to deny Gennifer Flowers's allegations of an affair, and intensified during the Monica Lewinsky debacle. Nothing the New York senator says or does will ever be as fascinating to journalists as her marital situation.

Rudy Giuliani has drawn copious coverage over his three marriages, especially since the New York Times quoted his 21-year-old son, Andrew, as saying that he had been estranged from his father and had problems with the ex-mayor's new wife, Judith. The New York tabloids and some cable shows went wild last month when Judith Giuliani revealed that she had a previously undisclosed former husband, making Rudy her third.

But nothing has touched an exposed nerve like the Edwards cancer debate. And although many journalists are sympathetic -- or at least respect the couple's right to choose their preferred path -- others have slammed the candidate.

"Ambition has blinded his judgment and Elizabeth's, too," writes New York Daily News columnist Jane Ridley.

"The decision is shortsighted and unrealistic," writes Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jill Porter, and "his priorities are out of whack."

Even Howard Stern got into the act, saying: "They got two kids. Go home. Be with the children. She needs to conserve her energy. It's a ridiculous thing." But Stern's sidekick, Robin Quivers, countered: "I don't think you have a right to tell this man how to run his life."

Some critics are dumping on Katie Couric's "60 Minutes" interview with the Edwardses, in which she said: "Some say what you're doing is courageous. Others say it's callous. Some say, 'Isn't it wonderful they care for something greater than themselves.' And others say it's a case of insatiable ambition." The sniping is hard to understand, because Couric, who lost her husband to cancer nine years ago, handled the interview with considerable empathy, and the couple have said it was fair.

All the publicity has prompted others to come out of the cancer closet. NBC's Anne Thompson revealed last week that she received a diagnosis of breast cancer a year ago but kept it a secret because "I was afraid that people would feel sorry for me." She says she is now cancer-free after undergoing chemotherapy.

In a Newsweek cover story out today, columnist Jonathan Alter writes about his battle with cancer -- he is now free of the disease -- and the cover of U.S. News & World Report features a "Cancer and Me" piece by health editor Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institutes of Health.

For Edwards, it's too bad that his moment in the media spotlight, even if it has given him a short-term political boost, turns on such tragic news. As Elizabeth Edwards put it: "I can't turn on the TV without seeing me, can't open the newspaper without seeing me, and honestly, I'm sick to death of me."

At some point, it seems that the raging argument about the couple's choice becomes less about them and more about us.

Off the Beat

The most prominent columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer is losing her column this week.

Gail Shister, who has covered television news for 25 years, has been reassigned to write mainly features about entertainment shows. She has gotten calls or e-mails of support from Matt Lauer, Judy Woodruff, Anderson Cooper, NBC News President Steve Capus, the producers of "Today," "World News" and "CBS Evening News" -- as well as hundreds of readers, some threatening to drop their subscriptions.

"Good grief -- you are kidding -- are they crazy?" wrote NBC's Andrea Mitchell. ABC's Charlie Gibson called her "one of the three print heads in the country who understands this beat."

The Inquirer's move came after 71 newsroom staffers took early retirement in a budget-cutting drive by owner Brian Tierney, who bought the former Knight Ridder paper last year.

Shister often wheedles news out of her sources. A column on Dan Rather last year got 146,574 online page requests, the year's highest total for the Inquirer's Web site.

Features editor Sandy Clark says she has had to reorganize a shrunken staff. "I just felt her column was too narrowly focused on network news, anchors and morning shows," Clark says. While Shister will occasionally cover network news, "it's not a bad thing to write stories that reflect what viewers are watching and talking about. We can't afford to be inside-baseball anymore."

Shister says the decision is "insulting" and was "made by editors who haven't been on the street or covered a story." She says writing about television is "more than just 'American Idol' and 'Lost.' It's not what the editors want, it's what the readers want. . . . That's also my main interest -- talking to real journalists as opposed to entertainment stars, for whom I have a short attention span."

War Story

A New York Times Magazine cover story last month on women at war included the saga of Amorita Randall, who said that while in the Navy "she was raped twice -- the second rape supposedly taking place just a matter of weeks before she arrived in Iraq." Randall also said her Humvee was hit by an explosive device in Iraq, leaving her with a brain injury. The Times called the Navy for comment three days before deadline, and quoted a spokesman as saying there was no record of the Humvee incident or of Randall's having been injured in Iraq.

In an editor's note last week, the paper said that after further discussions with the Navy, "it is now clear that Ms. Randall did not serve in Iraq, but may have become convinced she did." Navy officials said Randall was with the part of her unit that had not seen combat. "If The Times had learned these facts before publication," the paper said, "it would not have included Ms. Randall in the article."

Big Money

Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters is about to announce a $50,000 annual prize for what he calls "preventive journalism." Peters's Understanding Government Foundation, which underwrites reporting on government, will honor the best articles that expose inept officials, misguided policies or bureaucratic bungling before they lead to disastrous results.

Blooper of the Week

"The model could barely right a sentence" -- Houston Chronicle caption on a photo of Anna Nicole Smith.

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