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Bloggers, Tabloids First to Report Edwards’ Affair

August 11, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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For nearly a year, the National Enquirer tabloid reported that 2004 vice-presidential nominee and 2008 presidential hopeful John Edwards had an extramarital affair -- an affair Edwards admitted to late last week. Jeffrey Brown examines why the mainstream media remained silent on the story amid the flurry of tabloid reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Covering the John Edwards affair. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit look.

JOHN EDWARDS (D), Former Presidential Candidate: Hey, guys.

JEFFREY BROWN: For nearly a year, the National Enquirer has been reporting that 2004 vice presidential nominee and 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards had an extramarital affair and that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Recently, the Enquirer published blurry photos of a man who looked like Edwards holding a baby while talking with a woman in a Los Angeles hotel.

Edwards repeatedly denied the allegations to reporters.

JOHN EDWARDS: I have no idea what you’re asking about. I’ve responded to — consistently to these tabloid allegations by saying I don’t respond to these lies.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Friday, Edwards sat down with ABC News and admitted that he had, indeed, carried on an affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer employed by his presidential campaign. He denied fathering the child.

JOHN EDWARDS: My lord and my wife have forgiven me, so I’m going to move on.

BOB WOODWARD, ABC Anchor: Will your marriage survive?

JOHN EDWARDS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I think our marriage not only will survive, but it will be strong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elizabeth Edwards, who last year revealed she had incurable cancer, confirmed on Friday in a statement that her husband had confessed his infidelity in 2006. John Edwards said that the affair occurred during a period when his wife’s cancer was in remission.

Before Edwards’ admission on ABC, few mainstream media outlets had looked into the story or reported on the allegations. That changed Friday.

DAVID GREGORY, NBC Anchor: … John Edwards, who made public, finally admitted to the fact that he did have an extramarital affair back in 2006, this after a long string of denials as he was running for the presidency.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN Anchor: He says he’s ready to take a paternity test because a child was born, and she now says — the other woman — that she doesn’t want any paternity test.

JOURNALIST: Hollywood couldn’t write it this good.

JEFFREY BROWN: The NewsHour decided not to report the Edwards revelation on its Friday evening program. Yesterday, CNN’s Jessica Yellin asked if the Edwards coverage was warranted.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN Correspondent: I guess the larger question is, what’s the public’s need to know? He’s not a candidate. He’s not an office-holder.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the other hand, Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine said on ABC that the mainstream press might have failed in not reporting the story more aggressively.

MATT BAI, New York Times Magazine: But I actually, in a weird way, a guy like John Edwards deserves to have this story covered because we’re the ones who can actually get to the truth of it. And otherwise it just hangs out there as rumor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Prior to Friday, in fact, the Edwards rumor had hung out there for some time on the Internet, as online publications, discussion groups, and bloggers kept the talk alive and, in some cases, demanded it get more attention in the mainstream media.

Rumors vs. reporting

And for more, we turn to Rick Thames, editor of the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina; and Michael Calderone, media reporter for Politico.com.

Michael, this was a strange situation, where for a long time people in newsrooms were talking about this, but not reporting on it to their readers or viewers. Why not? What kind of discussions were happening in newsrooms?

MICHAEL CALDERONE, Politico.com: Sure, it's true. Well, the first two reports -- actually, the initial report in October was -- you know, very swiftly John Edwards said that it was categorically not true, as well as the other woman, Rielle Hunter. And a lot of news organizations basically took them at their word.

Similarly, there was a second report in December, and they both denied that he was the father of her child. And an aide of Edwards, you know, says that it was his child. So, again, a lot of news organizations kind of passed it off, taking his word over the Enquirer.

It wasn't until this more recent report, where a few Enquirer reporters, actually, you know, caught up with him in the hotel, and they had a very, very detailed account.

And that's what caused a lot of conversations in newsrooms, where people were saying, "This is incredibly detailed. Was he here? And what's our responsibility to readers? Should we take the Enquirer allegations just as they are? Or should we, you know, do our own investigation, try to confirm independently?"

JEFFREY BROWN: Rick Thames, what about the source, the National Enquirer? When something like -- when this first came out, what was your reaction? How seriously do you take it? When do you jump in? When do you kind of stand off?

RICK THAMES, The Charlotte Observer: Well, for us, this was really a matter of looking at it as a news tip. We get news tips from all kinds of sources, and some of them can be rather unsavory characters. In fact, they can make the National Enquirer, you know, look like the Congressional Quarterly.

But the point of the matter is, when you get a news tip, is you try to determine whether the tip, first of all, is it relevant? And in this case, I believe it was. And, second, you need to determine if it's true.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael, some papers did jump in, like Rick Thames', but many did not.

MICHAEL CALDERONE: Yes, a lot did not. Even the New York Times, you know, for one, has said they didn't pursue this story aggressively.

JEFFREY BROWN: And their ombudsman this weekend took them to task for it.

MICHAEL CALDERONE: He kind of scolded them for being a bit squeamishness and not at least trying to verify the Enquirer's account, because although a lot of -- you know, a lot of newspaper editors are going to be wary of the Enquirer -- and they do pay for sources, they do, you know, not play by the same rules as a lot of the mainstream media -- they have broken some really big stories, you know, going back to Gary Hart and the Lewinsky trial.

I mean, in the Lewinsky case, they broke stories. In the O.J. Simpson trial, they broke stories. So it is possible that, when they do these investigations, that they can get things right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you said they don't play by the same rules. Explain to our viewers what you mean by that.

MICHAEL CALDERONE: Sure. I mean, for one thing, mainstream media sources, you know, from CNN to the New York Times, they don't pay for sources for information.

And what the Enquirer will say is that we pay sources for information that can be verified. So in this case, their editor-in-chief, David Perel, has said that sources were paid for information and that was part of their whole year-long investigation in looking into this. So that's one reason that mainstream media is reluctant to take them always at face value.

Media no longer the gate-keepers

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Rick Thames, you said you take it as a tip. OK. But then where do you draw the line over what is relevant stories to offer your readers in this case or what is not, and particularly when you know that it is out there in the so-called blogosphere, that some people are talking about this?

RICK THAMES: I think there are two lessons here for mainstream media. And one is, of course, one that I think that we are quite aware of, and that is that we're no longer the gate-keepers. Sometimes now, when rumor arises, we're going to need to address it.

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. It was having widespread impact, in fact, on people's opinions about whether Edwards could be a vice presidential candidate or whether he should speak at the Democratic National Convention. So that's one thing. I think the...

JEFFREY BROWN: But let me stop you there, because how do you do that? How do you address it, in other words, before you know whether there's really something there?

RICK THAMES: Well, I think you do the best job that you can. You work hard to try to verify -- as our reporters were working, we were working public documents. We were talking to people. We were doing the best we knew how. We certainly weren't paying for any information, and we're philosophically against that.

But we were trying to report the story. And when we did bring the allegation to our readers, they also knew that we were trying to get to the truth.

And that is the second point, and that is this: I think that mainstream media are in the best position still to either verify or refute these rumors. And I think they need to aggressively pursue that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael Calderone, address one of these key points, especially about the -- the first point, about the gate-keeper.

MICHAEL CALDERONE: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: This change of the dynamic of how news gets out now between the mainstream media and the Internet.

MICHAEL CALDERONE: Yes, I mean, the last thing that the media industry needs right now is to appear lazy or to appear that, you know, they're just brushing off stories wholesale and not pursuing them.

And bloggers are the ones that really kept this story going, and kept writing about, "Why are we not seeing these stories?" Talk radio picked that up, too, and was asking, "Why is the mainstream media not reporting on Edwards?"

Because it seemed very strange. There was an openness on the part of the editor-in-chief of the Enquirer and other reporters to basically go through the entire details of this investigation and seemed to have some very interesting evidence and a lot of questions for Edwards.

And Edwards' response this most recent time wasn't to categorically deny that it was true. It was basically just to dismiss the entire report.

And he constantly was evading reporters' questions at Politico. I called him, you know, the first -- the day after this broke. And he refused to address any of the actual, you know, allegations that the Enquirer was putting forth. "Basically, you know, were you at the Hilton this night? Were you there?"

So because he was evading that, you know, the bloggers started saying, "We're not getting answers from this guy." And the media seems to be ignoring it.

Influence of bloggers

JEFFREY BROWN: So the bloggers in a sense pushed the mainstream media into this?

MICHAEL CALDERONE: I think in a lot of ways -- I mean, in a lot of ways, they did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you -- I guess not in your case, Mr. Thames, but do you see that throughout the rest of the mainstream media? Would you go that far?

RICK THAMES: I don't know if the mainstream media was reacting much to the bloggers. I can't speak for the other folks in the media, but I do know that, as soon as we saw the allegation, we treated it as a tip.

And once we realized it was relevant, we wanted to know if it was true. And so we started to report on it. And I think that would be the right response for any media organization.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about, Mr. Thames, for those readers and viewers who say, "Why is this a story anyway, especially now?" Mr. Edwards is no longer a candidate. He doesn't seem to be on the short list anymore for vice presidential possibilities. Why is it even a story to put out there now?

RICK THAMES: Well, certainly, he was a candidate in the time in question. He was running for president of the United States. And he still is or has been up until recently very much a public figure. He's been out making speeches. And I don't know that we've heard the last of John Edwards.

Edwards remains a public figure

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so you think it's still alive in the sense that's the reason to put it out there?

RICK THAMES: Well, I think he's still very much a public figure. And I think that many people voted for him. And I think they're owed an explanation for what happened in that period.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much of that, Mr. Calderone, was that discussion -- I mean, most recently, as of Friday, once he was coming out to say, "OK, I did it," how much of there was a discussion about, "Well, is it still a story anymore?"

MICHAEL CALDERONE: That was the discussion. I think, as -- you know, in late July, it was a little bit less so, but as we got closer to the Democratic convention, it's a very good question. Is John Edwards going to speak at the convention?

He's, you know, still -- even though he's no longer a candidate, he's no longer a sitting senator, he's a very prominent member of the Democratic Party. He's still on a short list for a cabinet position for attorney general.

So I think it's hard to say that, you know, he's retired to a farm somewhere and he's keeping a low profile. He's still very much out there. He was on his poverty tour, basically going around the country speaking at large events.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the rules for this sort of thing are not all that clear, are they?

MICHAEL CALDERONE: Well, it depends. I mean, he was running for president. And, you know, he -- essentially, he lied to the press while running for president.

And during his campaign, the narrative about, you know, his relationship with his wife played, you know, such a strong role, I think, for voters and supporters that it's worth looking at.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, thanks a lot, Michael Calderone and Rick Thames. Thank you very much.

MICHAEL CALDERONE: Thanks a lot.