Politics & Policy

The Edwards Scandal and the Agony of the MSM

They know it's news. They just wish it would go away.

I spent part of Thursday corresponding with people at major news organizations that have not reported the John Edwards “love child” story. Why haven’t they mentioned the scandal? Are they doing their own investigating of the National Enquirer’s allegations? Are they under management directives not to report it?

Most of the conversations — all of the revealing ones — were off the record; like anyone else, people in the press aren’t particularly eager to speak publicly about topics that make them uncomfortable. But from the exchanges, it’s possible to piece together some of the rationales journalists are using to continue not to report the Edwards story — and to see how the whole strange episode will end. So without quoting anyone or betraying any confidences, here is what appears to be going on:

First, the journalists don’t believe that news organizations should just uncritically pass on the reporting of the Enquirer. They have a point; the Enquirer has been quite accurate on some stories and inaccurate on others. One could argue that the tabloid’s reporting on this particular story contains a wealth of detail that remains un-denied by Edwards or anyone else. Still, there’s nothing wrong with news organizations being skeptical of the source.

But the question is not whether the news organizations should simply repeat the Enquirer’s reporting. It’s whether they are actively pursuing the story, doing their own reporting in an effort to confirm the basic allegations that Edwards had an affair with campaign staffer Rielle Hunter, and then had a baby with her, and is now covering it up. And here it appears — from this completely unscientific survey — that there is not a lot of independent reporting going on.

Instead, some big-time journalists seem to believe the Enquirer has nailed the story, and they are waiting for the tabloid to release the full results of its reporting. In the meantime, they are staying away from the story because it appeared in the Enquirer. In other words, they’re waiting for the Enquirer to fully report a story that they wouldn’t otherwise report… because it’s in the Enquirer.

That could have changed by this point. If news organizations had thrown a lot of resources at the story in an attempt to confirm (or disprove) the Enquirer’s allegations, it’s likely some of them would have come up with something in the two and a half weeks since the Enquirer reported the story on July 22. Instead, there has been nothing.

Is that the result of a group sentiment among journalists? Or have they been under explicit orders not to mention the story? We’ve heard about one such directive, at the Los Angeles Times website. But there are probably others out there. In today’s news environment, executives have to take more explicit steps than in the past if they want to rein in stories. Journalists have multiple platforms; they might mention a story in a newspaper article, a web piece, in a blog, on video, on television, or on radio. For news executives to make sure the Edwards story does not appear on any of an organization’s several platforms, they have to make sure that tight controls are in place. The Edwards story is not invisible by accident.

The only situation in which those controls don’t seem to apply is in Edwards’ home state of North Carolina, where intense interest in the story has prompted some local press outlets to report the news — and even do some reporting on their own. That’s how we learned that there is no father listed on the birth certificate of Rielle Hunter’s daughter, even though an Edwards aide claimed to the Enquirer that he, the aide, was the father. The local North Carolina press also told us that state Democrats are deeply concerned about the story, worried that it will affect Edwards’ role at the Democratic National Convention and beyond. That information came from news organizations willing to look into the story.

But most of the big ones remain silent. Will that change? Assuming the Enquirer story turns out to be accurate, and that it comes completely into the open, how do the news organizations finally report the story?

One possibility involves the upcoming Democratic convention. By all rights, Edwards, whose endorsement of Obama received extensive coverage, should be a speaker at the convention. If he is not, then reporters might feel bound to explain why. And that would involve the Hunter affair, allowing journalists to tell their readers and listeners what happened. An event will have taken place — Edwards’s absence from the convention — as a result of certain allegations, and the news organizations might well break down and report the reason. They might also broaden the story into some sort of broader think piece, perhaps on a topic like the role of aggressive tabloids in today’s politics, which would serve to de-emphasize the ugly nature of the Edwards matter.

So that’s how it might turn out. But at the bottom of it all, there’s still the mystery of why so many journalists have thus far refused to even mention a spectacularly scandalous story involving a top national politician. Perhaps it’s partisanship and bias — there’s certainly some of that involved — but perhaps it is also elitism. No top-rank journalist wants to be associated with the National Enquirer. But whatever the reason, with the Democratic convention approaching, the time in which they have been able to keep a lid on the story is probably coming to a close. The public will learn the news, despite the best efforts of some top news organizations.

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