On the Media: Why no Pulitzer for the National Enquirer?

Deliberations on the Pulitzer Prizes in journalism can be a bit like the work of the U.S. Supreme Court. There are too many cases to consider. So the judges have ample reason to kick even slightly suspect entries off their overflowing docket.

That appears to be the sort of journos-prudence that kept the National Enquirer from getting a Pulitzer, or even lengthy consideration, for its exposé of John Edwards and his world-class philandering during the 2008 presidential race.

The Enquirer’s more than two-year investigation lost out Monday to more traditional entries, no surprise to anyone in the journalism establishment. One winner in the investigative reporting category uncovered a rogue Philadelphia police squad. A second reconstructed the anguished decision by doctors to let desperately ill patients die at a hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

That was wonderfully distinguished work by, respectively, the Philadelphia Daily News and a reporter at the ProPublica investigative reporting service, a story that was published in the New York Times Magazine.

But neither of those pieces forced its way into the national conversation, nor will they be as long remembered, as the Enquirer’s stories on Edwards’ mid-campaign joy ride with a loopy, New Age videographer.

So, why not this: a special citation to the National Enquirer for outstanding work in exposing a politician who deluded himself into believing he could be both invisible and present in every living room in America.

In fact, the “Muffin Choker” could become a regular award, presented in the spirit of the editor who demanded reporters produce stories that would so stun readers they would choke on their breakfast (a phrase coined by former Boston Globe investigative editor Walter Robinson).

As the stodgy Pulitzers have just begun to recognize new media outlets like ProPublica, so “The Choker” would offer a bracing recognition of scandals that matter and, yes, sell newspapers.

When I talked to a disappointed National Enquirer Editor Barry Levine on Tuesday, he said he wouldn’t have ever thought of entering the paper’s work if not for the urging of a columnist and blogger, Emily Miller. “Before that,” Levine said, “I had mostly thought we were the rebels who would never be taken seriously.”

According to people on the seven-member jury that picked the finalists for the investigative reporting prize, the Enquirer entry was read and taken seriously. “At the end of the day, it didn’t rise to the top journalism of 2009,” said Mark Katches, a juror and editorial director of California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The chairwoman of the jury, which passed three finalists to the Pulitzer board for its selection of a winner, told me the Enquirer’s gossipy image did not enter the conversation. “There was nothing about politics or peripheral issues,” said Melanie Sill, who is also editor of the Sacramento Bee. “There was just discussion about the merits of each entry. And there were a lot of really great ones.”

Among the roughly 75 stories vying for the investigative prize were a New York Times investigation of contaminated hamburger and food safety issues (which was moved by the Pulitzer board and declared winner of the explanatory reporting prize) and a Sarasota Herald-Tribune probe into hinky real estate deals.

(The Enquirer also entered the stories in the national reporting category, but I could not reach members of that panel.)

One juror told me that, among that competition, the Enquirer’s stories about Edwards did not even make the top 10. The tabloid had first revealed Edwards’ relationship with his campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, in the fall of 2007 and continued to push the story forward through 2008. The Pulitzers announced this week were for work in 2009.

The Enquirer had broken news during the contest period, but not blockbuster stuff: It revealed a federal grand jury had convened to consider whether the one-time North Carolina senator committed campaign finance violations. It also reported details of Hunter’s support demands, which the paper said amounted to nearly $18,000 a month.

But that came more than a year after the Enquirer cornered Edwards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and somehow managed to secure a picture of the politician (who it once called “the immaculately coifed cheater”) holding his “love child.”

“The fact that the main revelations had happened in a prior year was one factor against them,” one juror told me. “There is a difference between a scoop or a ‘get’ and a great investigation with a high degree of difficulty.”

True, but not exactly on point. The Enquirer didn’t unwrap the Edwards saga merely via a single tip. It persisted over many months when many mainstream news organizations, including this newspaper, did little to follow up. (Some see a conspiracy in the big media’s silence. I see a focus of reporting resources on Barack Obama and other candidates who seemed more likely to get to the White House.)

The New York Times won a Pulitzer last year for the less demanding task of uncovering an ongoing government investigation — its revelation of then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s fling with a high-priced call girl.

The Enquirer, in contrast, started and drove the Edwards investigation. But the story dribbled out for so long a Pulitzer juror could be forgiven for viewing more recent chapters as something less than what the paper likes to call “blockbuster exclusives.”

Enquirer editor Levine, who reported some of the Edwards stories himself, has acknowledged that the paper paid for some of the initial information that got its investigation going. But he insists that none of the stories in 2009 had been paid for.

The subject of checkbook journalism barely came up during the deliberations, one Pulitzer juror told me. But it would have gotten a thorough hashing over if the sex scandal entry had been in more serious contention for a prize, the juror said.

Most mainstream journalists still believe that paying for information skews the playing field, not to mention its potentially corrosive effect on the truth. I agree.

But it’s also hard to deny that, this time, the Enquirer made a difference. “Had we not raised the question,” Levine said, “it’s possible Edwards could be in a key position in the government, whether vice president or in Obama’s Cabinet. It really could have affected the future of the government.”

It might not have fit into one of the Pulitzers’ neat categories, but it seems like that deserves some sort of recognition. And, thus, we give you the Muffin Choker.

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