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Does the National Enquirer Deserve a Pulitzer for Breaking the John Edwards Scandal?

5 years ago
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The National Enquirer is a supermarket tabloid, but the time has come for the media elite to admit that it has an excellent investigative reporting team, which broke the biggest political scandal of 2009, the John Edwards affair.

While its own editor concedes that the paper would never be given a Pulitzer Prize -- the jury is dominated by the newspaper establishment -- I believe the time has come for us to recognize the Enquirer's political investigative reporting.

Though I don't know the other nominees for the 2009 investigative category (the deadline isn't until February), and I'm sure there are many worthy entries, it's clear to me that the Enquirer deserves consideration for what remains the highest honor in American journalism.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, the paper was literally on Edwards' heels, reporting as early as late 2007 that Edwards was having an affair and his mistress was pregnant. Edwards only defense was to call the Enquirer "tabloid trash," which was enough to stop mainstream media outlets from further investigating the photo-documented reports.

Riveting new details of the widespread knowledge within the Edwards' campaign staff of his affair with Hunter emerged Saturday in a book excerpt published in New York magazine. The authors of Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, provide new jaw-dropping details of John and Elizabeth Edwards openly fighting over his affair in front of his staffers - at one point she rips open her shirt to show him the scars from breast cancer surgeries. Also, the book reports that at least three staffers quit the campaign over Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter.

The new details in this book provide further evidence that the mainstream reporters on the campaign trail with Edwards could have uncovered the adultery and possibly out-of-wedlock child if they had pushed the outraged former staff members for answers. Despite the legwork reporting done by the National Enquirer, there's little evidence that any of the reporters covering the Edwards campaign were interested in ascertaining if the accusations were true.

The Enquirer scooped the old-guard media for the better part of a year -- even after it broke a blockbuster political story that should have piqued the curiosity of working journos at any big-time news organization. A couple of nagging questions present themselves: Would the reporters "on the bus" have pressed the staff for what they really knew of the rumored affair if the reporting had come from a mainstream media outlet? Even more troubling: Would a leading Republican presidential candidate have similarly escaped the media's scrutiny?

To recap: In an intermittent barrage of exposés, The Enquirer asserted that Edwards, the two time Democratic presidential candidate and former senator from North Carolina, committed adultery on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth; that he fathered a child with his mistress, Rielle Hunter; that Edwards' long time aide Andrew Young falsely claimed -- and later recanted -- paternity; and that payments from campaign contributors close to Edwards were made to Hunter so she would go into hiding with the child.

As a result of the stories, Edwards (eventually) admitted to cheating on Elizabeth -- though he was quick to note that "it happened during a period after she was in remission from cancer." He reportedly is facing a possible paternity suit by Hunter and a federal grand jury probe into his use of campaign funds. (Edwards has denied paying anyone hush money.)

The Enquirer first reported on the affair in October 2007 and developed new details for months afterward amid a heated presidential campaign. Initially, Edwards was dismissive, saying, "The story is false. It's completely untrue, ridiculous." Now we know that as he was denying the stories, Hunter was already pregnant.

The Enquirer's executive editor, Barry Levine, says he is unaware of anyone else in the media seriously investigating the story until after the Enquirer spotted Edwards "with his mistress and love child in a hotel in Beverly Hills, and then we published a photo of him with the baby, finally leading him to confirm the affair to ABC." Even then, while admitting the affair, Edwards insisted that he was not -- and could not -- be the baby's father. "Not true. Published in a supermarket tabloid," he said on camera -- as if somehow the venue where the accusation first appeared made its veracity an impossibility.

Edwards' motivations to dissemble are obvious, but what is the excuse of the mainstream media -- especially when campaign funds are alleged to be involved? In 2009, the Enquirer beat other media outlets not only on the fallout of the affair on Edwards' family, but also on the grand jury investigation of campaign funds. And in this later aspect, it appears that the Enquirer's reporters and photographers uncovered the stories the old-fashioned way, by putting the time and manpower into an investigation.

Perhaps there's some good news buried in this sordid tale -- an example to be followed: The TV networks and many print outlets have dismantled or cut back their investigative teams, while the Enquirer continues to incur the expense of putting reporters on months-long stakeouts and paying them to literally knock on doors in search of sources. They do this, apparently, because they think that scoops still sell newspapers. And they have earned, at least in this instance, the right to crow: "I'm most proud our reporting of John Edwards was deemed by the federal government to be worthy of a grand jury investigation for possible misappropriation of campaign funds," Levine told me.

The National Enquirer Style of Journalism

Critics of the tabloid often dismiss it for its two-headed-dog stories, Loch Ness monster sightings, and tall tales of UFOs and alien abductions. The problem with that line of disparagement is that such fare hasn't been a staple of the Enquirer for 3½ decades. (This was a headline in the May 8, 2004 edition of the Enquirer: "Did You Witness Norwood UFO?" But that was the Cincinnati Enquirer, a mainstream daily owned by Gannett Newspapers.)

That same spring of 2004, esteemed media critic Jack Shafer of Slate wrote a piece headlined, "I Believe the National Enquirer: Why Don't You?" His peg was a Pew poll showing that most people believed almost nothing of what they read in the Enquirer -- in sharp contrast to the Gannett-owned USA Today. Shafer suggested that this faith in the traditional paper may have been unwarranted, asserting that had if USA Today fabulist Jack Kelley had tried to put his made-up dispatches past the editors at the National Enquirer, he would have been found out much earlier.

In 2008, amid the Edwards soap opera, Shafer weighed in on the subject again, this time taking the mainstream media to task for the double standard of ignoring Edwards while being in hot pursuit of Sen. Larry Craig's embarrassing escapade in a Minneapolis airport men's room.

For his part, Barry Levine is not surprised. He has a unique take on the herd mentality of modern journalism. "No one wants to be first, but everyone wants in after the heavy lifting has been done by us," he says. "We care less about the pack mentality -- we want to break those stories." But this is only part of the reason the Enquirer is shunned. A big part of the squeamishness is that the tabloid pays sources for information, engaging in what critics call "checkbook journalism." It is a practice shunned by mainstream media because, for one thing, it gives witnesses and sources an obvious incentive to make things up. This happened, in fact, to the Enquirer itself during the coverage of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case in Utah.

In that instance, its paid informants concocted a story that members of the Smart family were involved in a "gay-sex ring," implying that this was somehow related to the 14-year-old girl's disappearance. The story was false, and the Enquirer later paid the Smarts an undisclosed amount in a settlement. (In an interesting twist, however, two of the sources for that bogus story were mainstream reporters covering the case for a Salt Lake City newspaper. Both reporters were paid $10,000 -- and were subsequently fired.)

Levine makes no apologies for paying for information, saying the Enquirer no longer pays a source until and unless the tip checks out to be true. "Paying for information is no different than what the police or other law enforcement do, because if the tip pans out and can be substantiated, then paying for information doesn't taint the process," Levine asserts. "It just gives us a head start." Enquirer reporters still have to run down the leads with "standard shoe-leather journalism," he insists, "literally going door-to-door trying to find a source who will give more details."

Investigating Edwards

Levine says his paper's investigations can be lengthy and expensive. In the Edwards case, the Enquirer got interested when a tipster phoned the Los Angeles bureau and said that the Democratic presidential candidate was having an affair. Reporter Rick Egusquiza took the call and started the investigation; he continues to cover the story today.

After publishing the story of the affair in October 2007, Levine's editor said he would run the name of the mistress and reveal her pregnancy only if there was photographic evidence. Levine said his reporters and photographers camped outside the gated community where Hunter was living in North Carolina for two months. Finally in December, a photographer snapped a photo of her grocery shopping. The baby was born two months later, in February 2008.

"Within 24 hours of the story being published, she has a high-priced lawyer, and Andrew Young is saying we had it all wrong, he's the father, and that was the start of the cover-up," Levine recalls. He says that although "bloggers picked up the story, I was amazed that reporters covering the presidential campaign were not asking Edwards about Hunter."

The Enquirer reporters and photographers -- more than a dozen by Levine's count -- stayed on the story. Finally, in August 2008, other media started asking Edwards about the affair after the Enquirer published photos that it said were of Edwards with Hunter and baby in a room at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Two weeks later, Edwards went on ABC's "Nightline" and confessed to having an affair with Hunter, but denied that her daughter was his. "I know that it's not possible that this child could be mine because of the timing of events. . . . Happy to take a paternity test, and would love to see it happen," he claimed.

Specifically asked about the National Enquirer's photo of him with a baby in the hotel, Edwards responded: "I don't know anything about that photograph. I don't know who that baby is. I don't know if the picture has been altered, manufactured, if it's a picture of me taken some other time, holding another baby -- I have no idea."

Levine points out that The Enquirer, citing multiple sources, reported in August that a DNA test proved Edwards fathered Frances Quinn Hunter. "Two years later, we're still waiting for his public confirmation," he said.

Political Scandals Past

The Edwards scandal isn't the first one uncovered by the tabloid.

In 1987, the paper published pictures of Gary Hart with Donna Rice on his lap on a boat called "Monkey Business," which forced Hart to admit to adultery and cemented the end of his political career.

In 2001, the paper broke the story that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had an illegitimate child with a staffer at Rainbow PUSH Coalition and had paid her (using Rainbow Coalition funds) $40,000 in moving expenses after she became pregnant and relocated from Washington to the West Coast. Jackson, a two-time presidential candidate, admitted the daughter was his and briefly left public life to reconcile with his family.

Just weeks after that scandal, the Enquirer broke the story that the law firm of Hillary Clinton's brother, Hugh Rodham, was paid $400,000 in fees by two convicted felons to lobby for pardons by his brother-in-law, President Bill Clinton, in the final days of his presidency.

Clinton granted one a presidential pardon and commuted the prison sentence of the other. But after the Enquirer story was picked up by the mainstream media, Clinton insisted that Rodham return the money, which he reportedly did.

The paper's record isn't perfect. The wife of former California congressman Gary Condit sued the Enquirer in 2002 after it reported that Carolyn Condit "flew into a rage" during a 2001 phone call with Chandra Levy, who was later found murdered. Mrs. Condit insisted she had never spoken with Miss Levy, and the Enquirer quietly settled the case out of court a year later. But the tabloid was hardly the only news outlet to treat the Condits cavalierly -- and not the only one they sued. And the Enquirer editors insist that the Condit story was an aberration.

"We have a proven track record of breaking the biggest political bombshells," Levine told me, "but still the mainstream media will not often pursue our stories."

When asked about whether he was nominating his reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, Levine responded: "Our Enquirer reporters do deserve to be nominated for a Pulitzer, but you know the mainstream media would rather see the Earth explode first!"

Follow me on Twitter @EmilyMillerDC
Filed Under: Emily's Post

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