A Monday New York Times story by Stephanie Clifford gave one cheer to the National Enquirer tabloid for its work on breaking the news of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards's affair with Rielle Hunter, and their child. It was a story the Enquirer pursued almost alone and which could earn it an unprecedented Pulitzer: "From Rumor to a Hint of Respect."
But the excuses Clifford forwarded on behalf of the rest of the media were unconvincing, especially regarding the Times's own steadfast silence on the burgeoning scandal.
By being the first and, largely, the only publication pursuing the Edwards story through his denials of the affair and of fathering a child out of wedlock, The Enquirer is under consideration for a Pulitzer Prize, and it has strong support for its bid from other journalists. The success has Mr. Levine considering opening a Washington bureau to look for more dirt among politicians.
But The Enquirer stays ahead by doing what other papers won't. It threw reporters at the Edwards story, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on expenses, conducted stakeouts, paid informants and ran pieces based entirely on anonymous sources.
Those tactics have set off a debate about whether The Enquirer should even be eligible for a Pulitzer, the most prestigious journalism award. "When you pay people for information, the information itself often becomes distorted," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, though she said she supported its Pulitzer entry.
Clifford described how the Enquirer got the story that led to Edwards's confession:
It was a day of record-setting temperatures in the Cary, N.C., area on Wednesday, Dec. 12, with a high of 80 degrees forecast. And that happened to be the day Ms. Hunter, in a light sweater and jeans -- and obviously pregnant -- had an appointment. "If she was wearing a heavy coat that day, we wouldn't have been able to get the shot," Mr. Levine said.
A photographer took a flurry of shots as she walked by.
After The Enquirer contacted Mr. Edwards's camp for comment, the tabloid received calls from lawyers for Mr. Young and Ms. Hunter insisting that Mr. Young was the child's father. But the Enquirer team didn't buy it.
"I don't know a lot of men with the gumption to take their pregnant mistress home to their wife," Mr. Perel said. In its Dec. 31 issue, The Enquirer splashed its scoop across three pages, "John Edwards Love Child Scandal," with seven reporters' bylines.
Then: nothing. There was virtually no mainstream media follow-up. Today, some news organizations say they couldn't back up the allegations, and others say the reports seemed untrustworthy, coming from a tabloid. The other reason was political. By late January 2008, Mr. Edwards had ended his presidential bid.
But that "other reason" is misleading, given that Edwards was still in the presidential mix: In the summer of 2008 he made a nytimes.com list (which was kept updated) of Barack Obama's potential running mate picks, after Obama clinched the nomination on June 4.
According to the Times's no-doubt impeccable news judgment, Edwards was a possible VP candidate until at least July 9, mysteriously falling off the list sometime between then and August 7 (Edwards confessed to the affair on ABC's Nightline program August 8, after the Enquirer ran photos of Edwards playing with his "secret love child").
The paper's excuses for not covering the affair were also contradicted by their own past reporting on similar scandals, like John McCain's alleged affair, work based on anonymous allegations.