Conflationary Pressure

Edwards silence was not necessarily bias

Since last Friday afternoon, when the news of John Edwards’s marital infidelity broke through to the nation’s major media outlets, bloggers and commenters across the Internet have crowed—as they did periodically since the story surfaced three weeks, eight months, and one year ago—that that darn liberal media was covering up for one of their darlings. And they are not pleased.

What’s the evidence? Well, in the end, it seems to boil down to one rhetorical question: How else can you explain the silence? Q.E.D.!

Sheesh. I’ll grant this: over the last few weeks we’ve heard some pretty lame explanations from our heavy hitters on the story’s absence. To state the obvious, dodging Rielle et al because of ideological affinity would be a bad reason to hold your reportorial fire. A very, very bad reason.

I don’t buy it though. John Edwards was hardly a press fave. As old Gawker hand Maggie Shnayerson wrote on her personal blog—which I quote as an insight into the snarky dark corners of an honest journalist’s mind—the silence “certainly wasn’t out of party loyalty or our undying John Edwards crush—the guy’s a dick and always has been. Son-of-a-millworker, my foot and ass.” How many times did you hear about questions of “credibility”—his mansion, his hair cuts—from our primary punditocracy, painting the candidate as an opportunistic snake-oil salesman. Fair hits? Maybe. But it’s hard to see how that’s the sort of systemic bias abetting a conspiracy of silence.

In any case, bias is hardly the only answer to the silence question. There’s been some smart writing on this elsewhere. On Friday, August 8, when Edwards admitted an affair to ABC (shall we call it E-Day?), James Poniewozik, a Time TV writer, posted a thoughtful, worth-reading-in-full list suggesting why most of the press—himself included—avoided the accusations. As comprehensive as it is, the list doesn’t offer a hard conclusion.

And that’s not surprising. Decisions about coverage and newsworthiness rarely hinge on a single point, and this case presented a plethora of head-scratching counterfactuals and logical dead ends. In the end, it was a gut call, and queasiness can be hard to articulate.

At heart, the biggest problem was the source of the accusations. Yes, as we’ve heard endlessly these last few days, the National Enquirer has gotten a lot of politician sex scandals right in the past. But on Monday the Smoking Gun posted documents suggesting that the tabloid got another recent (re: Ted Kennedy, c. 2006) “love-child” story dead wrong. Seems that the paper’s better-than-you’d-think track record still deserves a sprinkling of salt.

Since July 22, the Enquirer has been relishing its spotlight, and taking time to rub their “scoop” in the face of Edwards and, more relevant to our discussion, the press. “We drew ‘em a road map to the story. All they had to do was follow it and do a little basic reporting,” Enquirer editor David Perel said. “They can, too—if they want to.”

But is that true? The Enquirer is well known—and often derided—for paying its sources, a journalistic line that major outlets are loathe to cross. It seems likely, as Perel suggested to Howard Kurtz over the weekend, that that was the case here. Related questions: Did Hunter’s gushy email, quoted in the Enquirer’s
from October 2007, come free? I’m speculating, but I’d guess not. Why would anyone eager to see that information spread for its own sake choose to leak it to a credibility-challenged tabloid over a more respected outlet like, say, the New York Daily News? And what about that “Spy Photo”? Anything else?

It seems reasonable, even necessary, to have treated the Enquirer’s October allegations as a reportable news tip, as the Charlotte Observer did. And from what I’ve been able to gather, lots of other reporters did, too, making calls and visits to California, New York, and North Carolina. Why didn’t this pack produce a story? The simplest explanation is that they just couldn’t confirm the sourcing at a level with which they were satisfied.

Before the photo was published, much, though not all, of the Enquirer’s sourcing boiled down to one massive “trust us.” Yes, as the Kennedy case shows, the paper can come up on the short end of libel suits, a threat which certainly encourages publications to have their facts in order. But witness the clamor that ensued when The New York Times—which, you know, is kind of the most respected news outlet in journalism—published a story where a key sex scandal allegation against John McCain was anonymously sourced.

The parallel is far from perfect. But given that reaction, and given the Enquirer’s sensationalistic reputation, it’s hardly a surprise that the rest of the press passed on the scoop. (That’s especially the case given the Edwards’ camp’s post-hotel encounter
to give any kind of denial—a brilliant jiu-jitsu move that took advantage of press procedurals. It’s “balanced” to run almost any accusation if it’s paired with a denial from the accused party. Remember, when Edwards denied the affair in December, there was a flurry of mainstream coverage.)

In the Times’s now infamous lady-lobbyist influence story, the paper at least told readers that “several people involved in the [2000] campaign” were the relevant sources. It’s not transparent—that’s why it’s called anonymous sourcing!—but it’s at least some evidence that there’s reporting going on, that there’s some structural underpinning to the story. You don’t get that at the Enquirer. For example, take this claim from Wednesday’s story:

And now The ENQUIRER has uncovered that … [Rielle] was whisked away on a private jet two days before he confessed their extramarital affair on national TV!

Oh boy! But wait—how did they “uncover” that? Aviation records? Reportorial witness? Conversations? Although at this point they’ve earned some benefit of the doubt on this story, put yourself in an editor’s shoes, pre-E-Day. The Enquirer’s lurid phrasing and facts without attribution aren’t exactly confidence inspiring, are they? Especially when you’ve got denials from everyone involved, and another man stepping forward to say he’s the father.

It’s not fair to discount facts for the way they’re presented, as long as the reporting behind them is trustworthy. But it’s another psychological barrier that anything coming from the Enquirer has to clear.

The bottom line is that there are some stories that can’t be uncovered under the conventional rules. Some cover-ups work. And it looks like this one did, for quite some time. This time, the Enquirer’s methods netted an important story, one that doesn’t end with the sex and narcissism. The facts are still unclear, but there are plenty of unanswered questions about how and whether Edwards used his campaign and para-campaign funds to hire, fly and overpay his mistress. That may be illegal. It certainly seems unethical, and exploitive of his donors and the federal matching fund system. And I bet many workaday Democrats, who could have seen Edwards face this story as their nominee, would like to know what his campaign advisors knew but chose to ignore or conceal.

Certainly some of these questions can be answered without payments and with some explanation of sources and methods. Edwards’ hometown paper, the Raleigh News and Observer has promised to keep reporting. ABC seems to be on the case, and The New York Times too. Let’s hope they have plenty of company. And who knows: good performance from the traditional press on this part of the story might assuage some who were disappointed with the first act. But enough outlets and resources need to be on the case so any silence will be seen as failure—not as bias-based lack of effort.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.