Steady Now…

A North Carolina paper covers the Edwards allegation. Carefully.

For the Charlotte Observer, it began in October, when the National Enquirer published an article suggesting that presidential candidate—and former North Carolina senator—John Edwards was having an affair.

The Enquirer’s story purported to quote crush emails the woman-in-question, Rielle Hunter, had sent to friends. But otherwise the piece was thin. And the tabloid, while enjoying a quiet reputation for being libel-proof, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the hearts of editors and readers.

Still, the McClatchy-owned Observer, the largest paper in Edwards’s home state, sent Lisa Zagaroli, its Washington reporter, up to New York to make contacts and check around.

“I looked at it as a news tip,” says Rick Thames, the Observer’s editor. “I wasn’t put off by it being in the National Enquirer. I was worried it if it was true.”

Thames felt Zagaroli was making progress. But then Andrew Young, an Edwards campaign aide, stepped forward to claim that he, not his boss, had impregnated Hunter. In Thames eyes, “the story cooled.”

But on July 22nd, the National Enquirer published a luridly written tale asserting that Edwards had joined Hunter and her now some-months-old baby behind closed doors in the Beverly Hills Hilton. After said meeting, the Enquirer reporters wrote that Edwards led them on a Keystone Kops style chase through the stairways, basements, and bathrooms of the hotel.

That ratcheted things up in North Carolina. On July 24, Jim Morrill, a veteran political reporter at the paper, posted an item on his blog linking the Enquirer’s account. Morrill called the Hilton to confirm, as best he could, the substance of the story. But they weren’t talking. Neither were his Edwards contacts.

So the paper asked some high profile political types how the rumor might affect Edwards’s chances of being named as Obama’s vice presidential nominee. The verdict was clear—even in the absence of non-Enquirer proof, this would be damaging, especially if Edwards wouldn’t step forward to deny it.

Even though it was a mere blog post, and even though the framing did not presume the truth of the Enquirer’s account—something Morrill says the paper was keen to avoid—the item was noteworthy as one of the first mentions from the traditional press of the scandal-in-waiting. Meanwhile, the story raged online. Conservative bloggers accused the “MSM” of covering for Edwards.

That’s not how Thames saw it—the love child allegations remained unproven.

“Sometimes people who read news on the web are frustrated by what they see as our sluggishness,” Thames says. “We’re still in the business of verification.”

“He’s forfeited the luxury of not speaking to this, and we’d like him to come forward and address this,” says Thames. “I can’t tell you what’s going on here. He’s usually someone who’s very accessible.”

To that end, when Edwards was scheduled to speak at a Washington AARP event, Zagaroli went to stake him out. She figured there was a good chance he’d exit via a door used by kitchen staff. She was right, and when he did come out the side door, Zagaroli fired off several questions.

“He was very polite. He just said he wasn’t able to get into it, and briskly walked to the car,” Zagaroli said.

The paper and McClatchy’s wire ran that encounter on July 31. On August 1, the Observer followed up with the interesting, but hardly conclusive, revelation that Hunter’s child’s birth certificate, obtained by the paper’s research staff, was missing any father’s name.

The next day, the paper ran a sober editorial laying out what, exactly, they knew and didn’t know about the story. They cautioned against assuming that Edwards silence equaled culpability. And they defended their speed and process, writing that “the truth has been hard to determine.”

“We’re trying to verify the allegation to the extent that we can, but we’re also trying to find concrete fallout from it,” says Morrill.

Today, the Observer ran an article very similar to Morrill’s original post, although this time, the question was whether or not Edwards was likely to be offered a convention speaking slot in wake of the Enquirer’s reporting. In an attempt to get comment, a reporter rang Edwards’s house gate bell.

The article mentioned that the tabloid yesterday published a blurry “spy photo” purporting to be of Edwards and child. And it included comments suggesting that the press’s heretofore quiet treatment of the story won’t last long. As Edwards’s 1998 Senate campaign manager told the paper, “it’s clearly getting ready to bust out.”

CORRECTION (8/8/08): This article originally said the Observer’s 7/8/08 article made no mention of the Enquirer photo, when in fact it did. It also conflated two articles that ran separately on July 31 and August 1. We regret the errors, which have been corrected in the text.

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