The Edwards Affair

Three questions for and about the media

On July 22, the National Enquirer first broke the story of John Edwards’s tryst with Rielle Hunter at the Beverly Hilton. Since then, the story gained almost no traction in the mainstream media. Los Angeles Times bloggers, for instance, were directed not to blog about it (a directive that was, in fairness, soon reversed). Editorial boards at all the major newspapers took the cautious road, citing the seeming tenuousness of the claim and the lack of evidence supporting it (the Enquirer published a blurry photo only two days ago, on August 6). The discussions we had in our news meetings following the Enquirer story took a similar tone: Would it be irresponsible to report and publish on what seemed to be an unsubstantiated claim? If the media were to run with it, what would happen if the rumors turned out to be false?

Now, ABC News is reporting that Edwards has admitted to having an affair with Hunter and to meeting her in secret at the Beverly Hilton. Questions abound about whether the media dropped the ball on the story, and what responsibility, if any, it had to follow up on the Enquirer’s lead. Here are some of the questions that we think will come up in the next few days

Where should the media stand on covering the private lives of public officials (and where did it stand in this case)?

Members of the media have these discussions each time someone in the political spotlight commits an indiscretion. Does covering that indiscretion qualify as intrusion or as legitimate muckraking? Is the unsatisfactory answer that it’s both?

Though technically a private individual, Edwards is enough of a public person that issues of interest to the general population (say, if a large portion of that audience wants to draw a connection between fidelity in private life and moral fiber in public life) may be aired without much contest, even if it happens to be dirty laundry. As a possible vice presidential candidate, he is still in the public spotlight. (And, according to ABC, the Obama campaign wasn’t pleased that he hadn’t immediately denied the love child allegations.)

But the moral fiber question that the media has always struggled with in covering politicians—does it matter, and should it—crops up again and again. As someone in the CJR office put it, would we care if Steve Jobs had an extramarital affair? Putting the question to both the media and the public, the answer would be, presumably, that, no, we don’t particularly care (or not nearly as much) if our country’s CEOs and corporate head honchos have affairs.

What exactly was the media’s obligation, to the public and to itself?

The two are inextricably linked in that the media serves a constant dual role in its service to the public: It provides information to its readers (which is, in part, driven by what those readers find interesting) and it exercises news judgment with respect to what is important for the public to know (i.e. contaminated water, corrupt government officials). In practice it ends up being a delicate balancing act, with interesting news sometimes trumping the important, and vice versa.

The MSM’s decision to pass on the story for two weeks indicated that it didn’t know exactly how to proceed—in fact, didn’t quite know whether the Enquirer’s story was something the public wanted to know, or should know. Concern over the notion that the story wasn’t confirmable seems to have won out in editors’ minds. But above and beyond that, there seemed to be a hesitation about the more fundamental question of whether or not it was news.

How should various sectors of the media, with distinct missions and different modi operandi, interact?

Steve Coz, former editor of the National Enquirer, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 1997 decrying bad-faith tabloid tactics. He wrote about his own paper: “We’ve chased down the cheating spouse, we’ve tried to get the telling pictures, we’ve reported the news. But we’ve never created the lover.”

But, apparently, hardly anyone in the MSM believed it when the John Edwards love child allegations came forth on July 22. Tony Pierce, the LAT’s blog editor, wrote to his bloggers: “Because the only source has been the National Enquirer we have decided not to cover the rumors or salacious speculations. So I am asking you all not to blog about this topic until further notified.”

Maybe the response instead should have been to use the Enquirer story as a tip for further reporting, as Rick James, the Charlotte Observer’s editor, did. It’s a mixed bag in this journalism world of ours, with varying priorities—to the public, to the watchdog mentality, to verification. But individual priorities may even be better met with interaction between the strata.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.