By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; C01
The executive editor of the National Enquirer says he plans to enter his paper's work on the John Edwards scandal for a Pulitzer Prize.
"It's clear we should be a contender for this," Barry Levine said by phone Thursday, hours after the former presidential candidate admitted what the paper had been reporting all along: that he is the father of Rielle Hunter's baby. "The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, was able to publish this reporting."
While the staff never doubted its reports that Edwards had fathered a daughter with his former campaign videographer, Levine said, "there is vindication, finally. Mr. Edwards kept the story alive much longer than it needed to be kept alive with his denials. He has only himself to blame."
While the Enquirer stories may or may not be prize-winning material -- the paper's most significant disclosures came in 2007 and 2008, and this year's Pulitzers will honor material published in 2009 -- there is no question that the tabloid scooped the rest of the media world.
When the Enquirer first reported in 2007 that Edwards had had an affair with Hunter, the former North Carolina senator dismissed the account as tabloid trash. The rest of the media, having no independent proof, steered clear of the story, even as Edwards, aided by his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth, was mounting an aggressive campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
In August 2008, after being knocked out of the campaign, Edwards admitted to ABC's "Nightline" that he had been lying about the affair. But he didn't come entirely clean. Asked about the Enquirer cover that showed him with the baby during a late-night visit to a Beverly Hills hotel, Edwards denied paternity, saying: "Published in a supermarket tabloid. That is absolutely not true. . . . I know that it's not possible that this child could be mine because of the timing of events." He claimed he wasn't sure if the man in the blurry photo was him.
Edwards acknowledged that Frances Quinn Hunter is in fact his child in a statement first aired Thursday by NBC's Lisa Myers. Once again, the Enquirer had been proved right.
Edwards's second admission was most likely forced by ABC's plans to air an interview next week with a former aide, Andrew Young, who originally claimed paternity in the case but is about to recant in a forthcoming book. In an excerpt released by the network, Young says Edwards told him: "Get a doctor to fake the DNA results."
Levine faulted the mainstream media's handling of the story, saying that even after Edwards's partial admission on ABC, news outlets "still didn't dig into it to a great degree, the fact that he had fathered this child. The larger issue involving the love child was the cover-up."
Some news organizations, including The Washington Post, did report that Edwards's former campaign finance chairman had steered payments to Hunter that enabled her to drop out of sight by relocating from North Carolina to a $3 million Santa Barbara home. A federal grand jury is investigating whether any campaign or personal payments made to Hunter were illegal.
While the Enquirer specializes in celebrity gossip, it has landed a series of exclusives that the rest of the press has wound up chasing. These range from its reporting on the O.J. Simpson case in the 1990s, to its 2001 disclosure that Jesse Jackson had fathered an out-of-wedlock child, to its 2003 report that Florida authorities were looking into prescription drug abuse by Rush Limbaugh.
Mainstream news organizations, unlike supermarket papers, do not pay for information. In the Edwards saga, Levine said, "the fact that we practice checkbook journalism, and we make no bones about it, certainly helped. But we've had every aspect of reporting, from pursuing financial documents to stakeouts to cultivating sources. Along the way, there were times when some sources came out of the woodwork and, for a tip fee, would lead us in another direction and help with the story."
He added that "at the end of the day, it's great to see he's taking responsibility for this child, Frances Quinn. She needs to know who her father is." That's right: a supermarket tabloid editor is now lecturing a former vice-presidential nominee on matters of morality.
As for the Pulitzer, Levine had better hurry: The deadline is Feb. 1.