By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008
The whispered allegations about John Edwards were an open secret that was debated in every newsroom and reported by almost none.
The story of Edwards's affair with a former campaign aide became so widely known -- what a Slate blogger called "undernews" -- that by last week there seemed little point in the mainstream media gatekeepers' keeping it isolated outside their moat. And yet, even as some national news organizations tried halfheartedly to confirm the tawdry tale, they ignored it in public -- wary of the National Enquirer, of Edwards's dismissal of "tabloid trash," of wading once again into the swamp of sexual scandal without definitive proof.
By early last week, journalists were in the awkward position of refusing to report on explosive allegations that were almost certain to knock the former North Carolina senator out of the Democratic convention. They were in a box of their own making, one that came to feel airtight and uncomfortable.
When critics, especially on the right, accused the media of protecting a Democrat because of liberal bias, journalists were unable to respond, because to do so would be to acknowledge the very thing they were declining to report. At the same time, in an area of financial cutbacks and shrinking staffs, news organizations have fewer reporters to dig into what most considered a less-than-pressing priority.
As the political fallout came to be openly debated in the North Carolina papers, I pursued the matter with my colleague Lois Romano and was struck by Edwards's refusal to talk about whether he had a relationship with Rielle Hunter, his former campaign aide, or to even issue a statement. Edwards's actions did not seem to be those of a man with nothing to hide. I came to believe that we should publish a story. But I don't get paid to make those decisions.
Only Edwards's belated confession Friday to ABC's Bob Woodruff allowed news organizations to jump on what most people already knew.
Those who blithely dismiss a brash supermarket tabloid -- what New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller called the "hold-your-nose quality about the Enquirer" -- had better check the record. The Enquirer's reporting of the O.J. Simpson extravaganza of the '90s was good enough to be cited by the Times itself. In 2001, the tabloid reported both that Hillary Clinton's brother had been paid $400,000 to secure a presidential pardon for a convicted businessman, and that Jesse Jackson had fathered an out-of-wedlock child. In 2003, Rush Limbaugh acknowledged an addiction to painkillers after the Enquirer reported that Florida authorities were looking into his drug use.
The Enquirer's standards aren't my standards, and I still believe that paying sources, as it did in the Edwards case, taints a story. But the paper knows how to conduct an investigation for certain kinds of stories.
It may turn out that the "love child" part of the Enquirer story is wrong and that Edwards is telling the truth about not being the father of Hunter's 5-month-old daughter. But the rest of the media are no longer giving him a pass.
Bill O'Reilly, while skeptical of the story, told his Fox News viewers last Monday: "I do know that if it were Mitt Romney instead of John Edwards, this would be on the front page of the New York Times."
I don't think the party favoritism charge holds up. Yes, the media went hard after two Republican senators, Larry Craig (who pleaded guilty in that bathroom incident) and David Vitter (who admitted calling an escort service). But they also pounced on New York's Democratic then-governor, Eliot Spitzer (whose taste in prostitutes was revealed by the New York Times), and, famously, Bill Clinton (whose Monica Lewinsky mess was disclosed by The Post and hotly pursued by Newsweek). It helps, of course, when there is a law enforcement inquiry that journalists can cite as evidence.
The argument that Edwards is merely a private person who should be left alone doesn't carry much water. He's a two-time presidential candidate, was the party's nominee for vice president four years ago, and was carrying on with the smitten Hunter -- a fledgling filmmaker paid with campaign funds during his White House run. Do the standards change dramatically the day after you drop out?
Some organizations made an effort to confirm the allegations, but this was no full-court press. "There was a certain reluctance by members of the mainstream media to admit they were beaten on a very big story by the Enquirer, so they didn't chase it," says David Perel, the tabloid's editor in chief, who for weeks has been fielding calls from reporters looking into the matter.
As National Review's Byron York wrote last week, journalists believed Perel's publication had the goods but were "waiting for the Enquirer to fully report a story that they wouldn't otherwise report . . . because it's in the Enquirer."
The Elizabeth Edwards factor cannot be underestimated. The enormous public sympathy for a woman who campaigned for her husband, even as she battled an incurable form of cancer, extended to many of the reporters who followed and interviewed her on the trail. The emotional high point of the Edwards campaign came last year, when he and Elizabeth held a news conference to announce that her cancer had returned, but that he would not leave the race.
Slate's Mickey Kaus, the leading online critic of the mainstream media's reticence, wrote that he had "gotten enough emails from anguished and angry members of the MSM to conclude . . . that it's the prime reason for the MSM blackout." But, he wrote, "If a politician whose chief appeal is his self-advertised loyalty to his brave, ill wife cheats on his brave ill wife, what's he good for again?"
As the debate raged online, the most important crack in the wall of silence took place at the Charlotte Observer, North Carolina's largest newspaper. By disclosing that the baby's birth certificate listed no father, the Observer opened the local floodgates for reporting about Edwards's political future just as Barack Obama's team was trying to keep him from spoiling their man's moment at the Democratic National Convention, which begins two weeks from today.
As the pressure built, Edwards continued to stonewall, hustling away from reporters at public appearances. At that point, the mainstream press seemed blind to what was starting to resemble a coverup -- which, in fact, it was, as the former senator has conceded in acknowledging his lies.
The fact that big newspapers, magazines and networks have standards -- that is, they refuse to print every stray rumor just because it's "out there" -- is one of their strengths. But in the latter stages of this case, it made them look clueless. Perhaps there is a middle ground where media outlets can report on a burgeoning controversy without vouching for the underlying allegations, being candid with readers and viewers about what they know and don't know.
In the end, the much-derided MSM were superfluous, their monopoly a faded memory. People have hundreds of ways to obtain information in today's instantaneous media culture, and are capable of reaching their own conclusions about what is reliable and what is not.
One small irony: Early last year, I wrote a column about the behind-the-scenes video that Hunter produced for Edwards's presidential run, a self-absorbed episode in which he said he would campaign "based on who I really am, not based on some plastic Ken doll." After watching the smooth-talking candidate preen for the camera, I questioned whether he was engaged in "carefully choreographed candor." I didn't know how right I was.