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?
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.
Moving right along: The NYT ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, seems to lean toward my position:
"Before Edwards's admission, The Times never made a serious effort to investigate the story, even as the Enquirer wrote one sensational report after another . . .
"I do not think liberal bias had anything to do with it. But I think The Times -- like The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, major networks and wire services -- was far too squeamish about tackling the story. The Times did not want to regurgitate the Enquirer's reporting without verifying it, which is responsible. But The Times did not try to verify it, beyond a few perfunctory efforts, which I think was wrong."
No one better than Maureen Dowd on Edwards's televised confession:
"Auto-psychoanalysis by the perp. That's really rich. When Bill Clinton acknowledged an affair, after equally adamant denials, he simply went into an old-fashioned spiral of penitence, his allegedly long, dark night of his alleged soul.
"Even in confessing to preening, Edwards was preening. His diagnosis of narcissism was weirdly narcissistic, or was it self-narcissistic? Given his diagnosis, I'm sure his H.M.O. would pay.
"The creepiest part of his creepy confession was when he stressed to Woodruff that he cheated on Elizabeth in 2006 when her cancer was in remission. His infidelity was oncologically correct."
What else do we know about Rielle? The HuffPost has a couple of e-mails she sent in 2006: "Hunter wrote about a trip she had taken to North Carolina to see the man whom she affectionately referred to as 'my love lips.' A week later she wrote another email in which she described the mental anguish of 'being in love with a (still somewhat dysfunctional) married man.' "
This woman had some fleeting encounters with Rielle Hunter in L.A., describing her as a "wack job," and quoted her as saying: "I am going to be famous. Rich and famous. I am going to meet a rich, powerful man."
That she did.
Former San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein has some thoughts on the media's performance:
"Most MSM in general had stayed away, picking at it with their noses held, as if looking for something valuable in a moldy dumpster. Of course the New York (City) Times said they were 'looking into it' but certainly not printing a story. Oh, no. On journalism sites, the finger-pointing, self-loathing, self-righteousness and tut-tutting was massive. Don't touch that dirty tale! Don't trust but verify! Why are we ignoring this?
"It's the same old problem when the most scandalous of the tabs breaks an actual story. It happened a lot with Bill Clinton, and Edwards now seems a little Bill lite-like ('I had sex with that woman but she meant nothing to me.' I'm sure Rielle Hunter feels as good as Monica Lewinsky did about that.) The perp is a little ashamed but leave it to the Mrs. to take the real humiliation hit.
"As always, the most interesting thing (OK, to me) about this are the cultural currents and implications. Is it worse when a darling of progressives betrays you than if it's Newt Gingrich? Better? The same? Was there a conspiracy to out Edwards hatched in a political brain? Will the MSM ever figure out the journalistic etiquette following a big tabloid scoop? Does anyone really think that a story splashed in the tabs and debated on blogs like a powerful fire back draft is somehow not part of the public discourse?"
On Slate's XX Factor blog, E.J. Graff says: "I am incredibly annoyed that we have to waste any air, print, or pixel time on this. Why do I care about some dude's marriage and marital problems--unless he did something that in any way abuses public power? . . .
"I just don't care what politicians do with their zippers, so long as their policies and votes are in order. By nature, national politicians are people who want power and want to be admired, even adored, to an absurd degree."
But Melinda Henneberger takes a different tone, addressing Edwards rhetorically:
"Was all this going on when you renewed your wedding vows last summer at that intimate backyard ceremony where you wrote your own vows and there was not a dry eye in the house? (The one your wife of 30 years lost weight for, because she wanted to look pretty for you and fit into her wedding dress?)
"Is this why you keep losing your wedding ring?"
Now that we know Elizabeth knew, I'm seeing her taking some licks, such as in this post from Lee Stranahan:
"I admired both of the Edwards prior to this. Like most people I especially liked and admired Elizabeth Edwards. Even when I believed that Edwards was hiding something, I assumed Elizabeth was a victim. Now, that's changed . . .
"Just taking the Edwards current statements at their words, I am left with a very uncomfortable truth -- both John and Elizabeth Edwards cynically used their marriage as a means to help John Edwards win an election. Right now, they are hoping that the emotional goodwill that they built up from their supporters will carry them through.
"I'm sure I'll get some angry comments here but if you're an Edwards supporter, let me put this bluntly; if you gave John and Elizabeth Edwards time, money, support, or goodwill, they played you."
As for presidential candidates who aren't having affairs, Peggy Noonan has some thoughts on the is-Obama-presumptuous front:
"What Mr. Obama has been doing, and this started before the European trip and continued throughout, is making people see him as president. He's doing this when he ambles back to the back of the plane and leans over the reporters, in his shirtsleeves, speaking affably into their held-up mics and recorders, at the end of the victorious tour. That's what presidents do. He speaks to rapturous crowds in foreign capitals. That's what presidents do.
"He isn't doing this to show he's inevitable and invincible. He's doing it to give voters the impression that they've already seen President Obama. That he's kind of already been president, he's done and can do all the things presidents do, to the point that by the middle of October a certain portion of the country is going to think he already is president.
"And he needs to give them this impression because he's a young black man from nowhere who's been well-known for less than a year. And he knows one of his biggest problems with older white voters is they just can't imagine a young black man from nowhere as president. He's helping them imagine.
"It's not vanity, it's strategy.
"However. Mr. Obama consistently shows that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. It's a theme with his talented, confident staff. They don't know what they don't know either. Because they're young and they've never been in power and it takes time to know what you don't know. The presidential-type seal with OBAMA on it, the sometimes over-the-top rhetoric about healing the earth and parting the seas. They pick the biggest, showiest venue for the Berlin speech, the Brandenburg Gate, just like a president, not realizing people would think: Ya gotta earn that one, kid. Going to Europe was fine, but they should have gone in modestly, with a modest venue, quietly spread word that his speech was open to the public, and then left the watching world awed by the hordes that showed up."
Well, voters did elect a young white man from nowhere--or at least Hope, Arkansas--making me wonder whether "black" is the key word in that sentence.
On the elitism watch, Josh Marshall suggests we take a closer look at Obama's opponent:
"McCain has spent two decades cultivating the press -- specifically, the cadre of several dozen reporters based in Washington who report for the leading national newspapers and television networks. They know him. They've liked him. In part this is because he's made a concerted effort to appeal to them, by making himself accessible. He's also a pre-babyboom military man, a profile that has a special appeal to many boomers who never served. But familiarity and affection, as it does in all our lives, leads us to ignore faults.
"Not only is McCain an extremely wealthy man who didn't have to work for any of his wealth, he's also a man of very expensive tastes. Little facts capture the story. According to financial disclosure statements released in June, the McCain's are currently carrying between $135,000 and $335,000 in credit card debt. Given their wealth, which is in the many tens of millions of dollars, that means either that they spend a tremendous amount of money on themselves -- and this is just the 'carry' on an average basis -- or they have real problems managing their money. In any case, yes, McCain's an extremely wealthy man, with fancy clothes and houses across the country. But he got his money from marrying into it.
"Of course, patricians can make presidents. Franklin Roosevelt is the prime example. But as McCain continues his campaign to define Obama as a high-living fancypants, let's not forget the McCain was born into a life of privilege and continues to live that life today.
"McCain question of the day: Do you own your own private jet? McCain does."
Not me. I fly coach.
By the way, Tina Brown is starting a new Web site called The Daily Beast. Nice name.