The Edwards Affair and the Media
The hand-wringing, second-guessing, teeth-gnashing and crowing over the Edwards affair and the lack of MSM investigation into it continues unabated.
David Perel, editor of the National Enquirer, which has owned the story from the beginning, grandly proclaimed on Huffington Post that "one of the most important byproducts of the Edwards affair" is "the watershed moment of the shifting balance of media power" from the MSM to the blogosphere and more populist media.
Journalistic standards are now being determined in cyberspace, Perel wrote, and any criticism of that "increasingly sounds like a death rattle echoing throughout the pared-down newsrooms of corporate journalism."
As Perel put it:
Days passed with no TV broadcasts or daily newspaper articles about the scandal, but the blogosphere was blazing with hundreds of reports about Edwards' late-night visit with his mistress and baby and for the first time, the average person was aware of a story that had received no 'mainstream media' attention but was thriving on the Web. That simple fact is the true watershed moment of the Edwards affair; it is the bright line demarcating the point when mainstream media's relevancy developed irreparable (and most likely fatal) cracks, when an army of bloggers overran the stodgy elitist guard with the same type of scandal that once turned newspapers and their immortalized Yellow Kids correspondents into daily habits.
To Will Bunch, who writes the blog Attytood for the Philadelphia Daily News, the system worked -- the tabloid media got its hands dirty outing a political scandal that could safely be ignored until the target of that scandal was forced to make a public confession:
What's the solution? Maybe there should be a news organization that makes the sex life of politicians its No. 1 priority, so that other reporters can be left alone to do real journalism. Oh, wait, there already is such a publication! It's called the National Enquirer. They spend thousands on their tawdry probes, and when they're done, the traditional media can judge whether the findings are actually newsworthy (as they were with Edwards) or not. In other words, for better or worse, that is exactly the system we have in place now.
Gabriel Sherman in the New Republic deconstructs how the Enquirer got the scoop. It's a gripping tale.
The story started in September 2007 with an anonymous tip to Enquirer staffer Rick Egusquiza, a bartender turned reporter. The Enquirer ended up putting nearly a dozen reporters on it for months. Within the first month, they had e-mails from Rielle Hunter confirming the affair. The first Enquirer story ran Oct. 10, 2007, using unnamed sources to say Edwards was having an affair but not naming Hunter. "We knew her name, but we withheld it," Perel said. "We were being conservative; sometimes we err on the side of caution."
The next month, the Enquirer sent a team of four reporters to North Carolina to do surveillance of Hunter. They staked out her OB/GYN office for two weeks to get a picture of her outside a nearby grocery store.
Months later, in July of this year, they learned that Edwards would be meeting Hunter at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. With four days notice, they swung into action. A team of seven reporters staked out the hotel, catching Edwards in a stairwell after 2 a.m.
Perel took time out from recounting the Enquirer's successes to bash the New York Times for failing in its pursuit of John McCain and his relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. As Sherman wrote, five Enquirer reporters chased the Iseman story for more than a month without turning up evidence of an affair.
"I wouldn't have run that piece, there was nothing in it," Perel told Sherman. "It was filled with innuendo. . . . When you're done reading it, you're like, there's no there there."
What do we make of all this as MSM editors of an investigative blog?
1. The Enquirer is to be applauded for its investigative effort on the Edwards story. The full-court press it pulled--nearly a dozen reporters over 11 months, four reporters on a two-week surveillance in North Carolina--is the kind of manpower surge no one does anymore. By contrast, the New York Times in pursuit of the Vicki Iseman story employed four reporters for a few months, and no surveillances. In this age of diminishing resources, even the biggest newspapers don't have the kind of resources the Enquirer employed to throw around on a single story that might not pan out.
2. The MSM is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. If it goes after the story and doesn't nail it, it ends up like the New York Times on Vicki Iseman, hammered for running something with "no there there." If it doesn't pursue, it ends up where it is now, looking, in the words of Post media critic Howie Kurtz, somewhat "clueless," old fuddy-duddies outclassed by the new media.
And then there is what happens when the MSM does nail it. Forget the huge backlash the press endured for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. There's an older example that's even more instructive.
In Gabriel Sherman's New Republic piece on the National Enquirer's scoops, he made a big and telling omission. Sherman wrote that the Enquirer "has a remarkable record in driving the mainstream media's coverage of political figures," citing as an example Gary Hart and Donna Rice. Not quite.
The Enquirer did not break the Gary Hart story, the Miami Herald did. The Herald sent four journalists to Washington, D.C., to stake out Hart's Capitol Hill townhouse in an effort to catch him with Rice. The Herald confronted Hart when he came out of the townhouse and published a story.
Four-journalist stakeout, confronting the candidate as he leaves his mistress, sound familiar? Here is what the Enquirer did in that scandal: a few days after the Herald story, the Enquirer reportedly paid $250,000 for a picture of Gary Hart wearing a Monkey Business T-shirt with Donna Rice sitting on his lap. The Enquirer got worldwide publicity for that. The Herald got its story and it, too, got worldwide publicity. But the Herald also got roundly criticized for doing the Hart story in the first place. Reporters had "hidden in bushes" and "snooped" in windows and violated a candidate's privacy and the rules of journalistic probity. The newspaper was widely condemned by many journalistic elders for going too far.
How soon they forget.
By The Editors |
August 25, 2008; 10:45 AM ET
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