Jack Shafer, the media critic for the liberal website Slate, is wondering why the national media is ignoring the National Enquirer’s tale of John Edwards visiting what the tabloid claims is his mistress and the mother of his child. He claims it’s a double standard when they all leapt at a mere toe-tapping incident with Sen. Larry Craig in the Minneapolis airport:
So why hasn't the press commented on the story yet? Is it because it broke too late yesterday afternoon, and news organizations want to investigate it for themselves before writing about it? Or are they observing a double standard that says homo-hypocrisy is indefensible but that hetero-hypocrisy deserves an automatic bye?
That's my sense. Consider how the press treated Jesse Jackson when he admitted to having fathered a daughter outside of his marriage. The baby arrived in 1999, but Jackson didn't go public about it until 2001, after the National Enquirer scheduled its story about the little girl and her mother. Jackson, who loves preaching to others about their morality, suffered less than two seconds of opprobrium from the press after his admission.
It's hard to top Jackson for hypocrisy. In late 1998, while Karin Stanford was carrying the reverend's child, the two visited President Bill Clinton in the White House. Bill was "recovering" from the Lewinsky scandal, and Jesse was there to "counsel" him.
It is certainly true that the media's sympathy for Jackson about his affair was deep and obvious in early 2001. See the MRC reports here and here. When Stanford granted an interview to Connie Chung and ABC's 20/20 that August, Chung described Jackson as a "charismatic national symbol of human rights."
You would think that the charge of adultery against John Edwards would amount to a serious case of hypocrisy, since the media have aggressively touted the marriage (and its annual celebration at Wendy's) and the heroism of his wife Elizabeth's fight with terminal cancer.
When the original Enquirer story about the affair with Rielle Hunter came out, Edwards categorically denied the relationship, stating: "The story is false. It's completely untrue, ridiculous." As he rejected the Enquirer's charges, Edwards was making his wife and their marriage a central component of his campaign. If Edwards had had no affair, he wasn't a hypocrite, not then and not now.
But if Edwards had an affair and lied about it, shouldn't he suffer scrutiny akin to that of Craig? At least three-dozen daily newspapers in the United States published the Craig news the day after the Roll Call scoop, according to Nexis, but this morning not a single U.S. daily mentioned the Enquirer piece.
Now, as I've already said, the two stories aren't completely analogous. A cop charged Craig with a misdemeanor, and he pleaded guilty. There's no denying the police blotter is always news, and there's no denying that Craig deserved the hypocrisy scrutiny. Edwards, as far as we know, is guilty of nothing beyond running away from tabloid reporters in a Beverly Hills hotel stairway in the wee a.m. after visiting a female friend in her room. Also, all of the Enquirer's published "evidence" of an Edwards affair comes from unnamed sources. And I should mention that an Edwards political operative, Andrew Young, claims that he is the father of Hunter's child. (Young is married with children of his own.)
Yet, if the press craves consistency, it owes its readers some sort of assessment of Edwards. Is he, like Craig, a public hypocrite? Edwards is still very much a public figure. As Drudge notes today on his site, as recently as June the Associated Press reported that he was a vice presidential short-lister.
Let me add my two cents to Shafer's sensible pennies. The double-standard here clearly looks partisan -- Edwards vs Craig, or Mark Foley. There's also another standard that strangely kicks in. Trivial sexual matters like toe-tapping and scuzzy Internet messaging are more likely to get coverage than charges that raise more serious questions like cheating on a dying wife (or charges of raping a political supporter, as in the Juanita Broaddrick charges). Reporters laughed and joked about Craig and Foley. They're not laughing when the shoe is on the foot of their favorites.