Journalists Soul Searching Over Edwards Scoop
The National Enquirer's scoop of MSM (mainstream media) in reporting the story of John Edwards's extramarital affair has prompted some soul searching among pundits, analysts and journalists about the media's performance in getting the story.
The Post's David S. Broder says he was as "shocked as anyone could be at the news" of the one-time presidential candidate's affair with campaign staffer Rielle Hunter.
Andy Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, told Editor & Publisher that he wondered whether ongoing cutbacks in some newsrooms affected efforts to find out whether the affair was true. Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times, went so far as to criticize collectively the mainstream media's efforts to uncover the affair:
"I think The Times -- like The Washington Post, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, major networks and wire services -- was far too squeamish about tackling the story," Hoyt wrote. "The Times did not want to regurgitate the Enquirer's reporting without verifying it, which is responsible. But The Times did not try to verify it, beyond a few perfunctory efforts, which I think was wrong."
Walter Shapiro, writing for Salon.com, opines that reporters, including himself, have had little success in fully covering vice presidential candidates, failing to unearth some of the less desirable qualities of politicians:
"Without overstating these bonds, I naively believed that I knew Edwards as well as I understood anyone in the political center ring. Yet I never saw this sex scandal coming -- partly because I accepted the mythology that surrounded the Edwardses' marriage and partly because I assumed that any hint of a wandering eye would have come out during the 2004 campaign," Shapiro writes. "But then Rielle Hunter and the National Enquirer brought us all into the real world."
Sharon Waxman, a former Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post, writes that there's a simpler reason tabloids like The National Enquirer are getting the latest details about the Edwards story: money.
"Last week I spoke to a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer who said he spent five days in Los Angeles trying to confirm any aspect of the Beverly Hilton story. He came up with nothing. Zero. Zilch," Waxman wrote on her blog, "WaxWorld." "Not because he wasn't trying. Because without a checkbook, the Raleigh News & Observer was not going to be let into the world of Rielle Hunter."
In defense of its coverage, News & Observer Executive Editor John Drescher said the Edwards's story was "difficult" to report, partly because affairs are hard to uncover unless a paper or electronic trail can be found (see Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick).
Drescher also noted that tabloid stories that pay for information need to be fully vetted, saying that "pay-for-play" arrangements can give sources incentives to lie or exaggerate.
"The Enquirer cannot be ignored. But neither can it be trusted," Drescher writes. "We needed to verify the hotel allegations, or at least give Edwards a chance to address them, before publishing. We reported aggressively but used restraint when it came to publication."
"Some readers think we did too much with this story; others think we did too little. I think we handled it right."
Speaking on PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," The Charlotte Observer's Rick Thames said the Edwards story might prove to be a turning point for the mainstream press.
"We're no longer the gate-keepers. Sometimes now, when rumor arises, we're going to need to address it," Thames said. "And, unfortunately, we may need to address it before we can determine whether it's true or not because it's having impact, as it was in this case."
UPDATE 4:28 p.m. Thursday: PBS' ombudsman, Michael Getler, called NewsHour's decision not to air a story about the Edwards affair because he wasn't a public figure a "bad decision."
"The decision not to report the Edwards confirmation story struck me as both patronizing to people who depend on PBS for news, and journalistically mind-boggling," Getler wrote.
By Derek Kravitz |
August 14, 2008; 1:05 PM ET
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