Mainstream media finally pounce
The mainstream media’s near-silence about a tabloid report that former presidential candidate John Edwards had an extramarital affair with a campaign worker ended abruptly Friday when he admitted the relationship to ABC News.
The cable news networks pounced on the story, broken by the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer last year but largely unaddressed by major news organizations until Edwards’ admission.
Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all had extensive coverage of the scandal throughout the afternoon, and the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post quickly posted stories on their websites.
Several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, had been pursuing the story prior to Friday. But the burst of attention after he confirmed a romantic relationship with Rielle Hunter, who produced video documentaries for his campaign website, was in marked contrast to the way those news organizations had tiptoed around the original reports.
The Enquirer first published a story in October about a relationship between Edwards and a campaign worker, quoting unnamed sources. Edwards called it “completely untrue” and “ridiculous.”
The tabloid pressed on, reporting that Edwards had fathered a child by Hunter. Two weeks ago, it published a detailed story about a visit Edwards paid to Hunter at the Beverly Hilton, where he was confronted by Enquirer reporters.
The Enquirer’s stories caused waves in the blogosphere but got little bounce from major print publications or television networks.
Edwards ultimately admitted the affair Friday in an interview on “Nightline” with Bob Woodruff, who covered his 2004 presidential bid.
The former North Carolina senator maintained that he was not the father of Hunter’s daughter.
David Perel, editor of the Enquirer, said he felt vindicated. “It’s good to see public acknowledgment that our story was accurate all along,” he said.
But the news triggered anger and disappointment on Internet message boards, along with condemnation of the news media.
“Probably the biggest question about this whole mess is why the mainstream media protected Edwards by ignoring the story for the past 8 months,” read one typical comment on ABC News’ website.
Several news executives said their organizations had been pursuing the story but had not confirmed it.
Sam Feist, CNN’s political director, said its reporters had been trying to nail down the allegations since last fall.
But with Edwards denying the affair and another campaign worker claiming to be the father of Hunter’s child, the network felt it needed persuasive information before airing a report, Feist said.
“In a story like this, these are significant allegations,” he said. “I think it’s entirely appropriate . . . to wait to report a story until they have information that they’re comfortable with reporting.”
The Los Angeles Times was unable to confirm the details in the Enquirer, said Craig Turner, an editor who oversees front-page stories for the paper.
“All I can say is that we’re not in the business of printing things we don’t know to be true,” Turner said. “The problem with a story like this is that it’s very, very difficult to ascertain the truth until one of the people steps forward.”
The fact that the Enquirer said its reporters had seen Edwards at the hotel was not enough to go on, he added.
“The National Enquirer is a supermarket tabloid that is accurate some of the time and inaccurate some of the time,” Turner said.
A few news organizations did follow the Enquirer’s reporting, including Fox Newsa detailed story.
The Charlotte Observer went further than most. The North Carolina newspaper broke the news that the birth certificate for Hunter’s daughter did not list a father. On Thursday, the Observer reported that Democratic Party strategists said Edwards needed to address the Enquirer reports or risk losing a speaking slot at the national convention.
Rick Thames, editor of the Observer, said the paper had decided it would be foolish not to acknowledge the story.
“It was the subject of late-night talk shows and certainly all over the Web,” he said. “It was in our culture and in our faces, and to act as if it didn’t exist would be to ignore reality.
“I don’t know if others were confused by the fact that it seemed tawdry to follow a tip that began with a tabloid,” he added. “The truth of the matter is journalists take tips from all sorts of sources, and some of them are unsavory. That’s not so important as what you do with the tip.”