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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008; 7:33 AM

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?


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