Dissing Elizabeth Edwards

The media miss the real story—her health care message

Charlotteobserver.com ran a piece Sunday written by a reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer that criticized Elizabeth Edwards. Her sin: dealing in seclusion with the sex scandal that has engulfed her husband, former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

Elizabeth Edwards, once celebrated on the campaign trail for her forthrightness, has been a target of criticism since her husband’s ABC interview. The public compassion and sympathy typically lavished on the spurned spouse in such situations has faded, with questions swirling about when she first found out about her spouse’s liaison.

How dare Edwards remain in seclusion to deal with yet another blow? As I noted earlier this year in my introduction of Edwards as the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists, she has endured every mother’s worst nightmare—the death of a child—and every woman’s worst nightmare—breast cancer. Why shouldn’t she have some privacy to sort out this latest trouble—spousal infidelity?

How gossipy and speculative the Observer story was! “Timeline questions,” read one subhed. “She would have been a star,” read another. What did she know? When did she know it? The standard gotcha treatment of bad boy (or girl) politicos became press fodder for a few days—along with laments about Edwards’s nonexistent role at the Democratic National Convention. Could she otherwise have been a major speaker, perhaps talking about health care? The story quoted political analyst Larry Sabato. “I think she would have gotten a speech. It would have been emotional, probably televised,” he said.

Did the Dems miss an opportunity to showcase Edwards, or did the press miss the real story? Edwards dared to challenge John McCain last spring, saying that neither of them would get health insurance under the proposals McCain was making. Her comments spread across the Internet. She had questioned the sine qua non of health insurance in America; the right of commercial insurers to choose to carry the healthiest people and reject those whose illnesses will cost the carriers money. And, in a very personal way, Edwards made it clear to the public that when they, too, get sick, they may not get insurance or care. Then what, she asked?

The right of insurance companies to maintain business as usual is the major issue underlying health reform, and one that that the candidates need to address with details, not the vague generalities they’ve offered so far. And the press needs to prod them to do so. Let’s not worry about DNC might-have-beens for Elizabeth Edwards, or scorn her for not revealing her husband’s infidelities sooner. Let’s worry about what might be for the hundreds of thousands of Americans for whom she was speaking. As the campaign gets going, editors should revisit their tickler file, resurrect the words of Elizabeth Edwards, and then send their reporters off to do some stories that really matter to people.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.