Pop quiz: Say you’re a political blogger for a respected Web publication. You come across an article in a, well, not-so-respected publication accusing one of the leading presidential candidates—whose wife has cancer—of having an affair. The article is barely sourced, its veracity highly questionable. But, you know, if true, the story would pretty much guarantee the demise of the candidate’s campaign. If true, the story could be huge.

Do you:

A) contact the piece’s reporter to get more details about the story, to determine for yourself whether it’s substantive enough to share with your readers

B) wait to see whether more details come to light to substantiate the story; you don’t want to spread rumors

C) mention the story on your blog, informing readers of the allegations while highlighting the fact that, at this point, they’re basically unsubstantiated

D) highlight the story on your blog, providing a link to it for your readers—then write a tirade slamming “the MSM” for not covering the story and analyzing what would happen if the story turns out to be true


Mickey Kaus chose option D.

Here’s the story: The National Inquirer yesterday published an article entitled “PRESIDENTIAL CHEATING SCANDAL! ALLEGED AFFAIR COULD WRECK JOHN EDWARDS’ CAMPAIGN BID.” The big scoop is that “sources have come forward” to disclose an affair Edwards has allegedly been conducting, for the past eighteen months, with a woman he met in a bar. But it’s not “sources,” it’s “source”: a friend—one friend—of the woman in question. According to the unnamed “pal,” the alleged paramour “confessed to having an affair in phone calls and emails, saying that her work with Edwards soon exploded into romance.” As documentary evidence, the story quotes e-mail messages from the supposed mistress in which she admitted that…she has a crush on Edwards.

And what does the star character in all this, Edwards’s alleged mistress, have to say about it?

“The ENQUIRER made exhaustive but unsuccessful attempts to reach the woman for comment regarding this article but she would not return phone calls or emails or come to the door of the house where she is staying.”

So we’ve got one secondary source, two barely-incriminating e-mails, one under-punctuated apologia—and one five-alarm, exclamation-punctuated headline. US Weekly has higher standards than this.

Which doesn’t, however, stop Kaus from repeating the allegation on Slate—and then moralizing about it. “I think if true it’s scummy behavior on his part that Democratic primary voters should know about,” Kaus writes.

Sure, it would be “scummy.” But it would first have to be true. You don’t have to be Karl Rove to appreciate the viral power of political insinuation; for someone in Kaus’s position to pass along basically unsubstantiated rumors is, at best, annoying: it promotes the precise brand of character-driven political coverage most of us are sick of at this point. Worse, it’s unfair to Edwards—just as it would be unfair to Giuliani or Clinton or Romney or Obama or any other candidate on the receiving end of these allegations. And to criticize the MSM for not reporting the rumors—for, you know, holding off on spreading rumors until and unless they’re substantiated—is laughable. “The MSM,” Kaus writes, “seems to be strenuously trying to not report it.”

Kaus is splitting more than his infinitive here; he’s trying to separate himself from the MSM. But, if he’s successful, it’s the MSM that comes out on top. The press is right not to run with the Edwards story—because it’s not yet a story. The MSM should be investigating the “shocking allegation,” sure. And maybe it will turn out that there’s substance behind the gossip. But presidential campaigns aren’t Hollywood; Edwards isn’t Britney. One outlet’s treasure can still be another’s trash.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.