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David Perel

David Perel

Posted: August 21, 2008 03:48 PM

All the Scandalous News That's Fit to Print


Politicians lie. The National Enquirer pays for information. The mainstream media is falling out of touch with America.

We hold these truths to be self evident.

And yet when all three of these variables collided in the perfect nexus of the John Edwards cheating affair, the resulting public shock and outcry was so great you would have thought Obama had chosen Britney as his running mate.

After the Enquirer's reports that Edwards had an extramarital affair were finally confirmed by his TV mea culpa, the gnashing of teeth from mainstream journalists was so loud you could barely hear the sobs of everyone who posts for the Daily Kos.

Journalists' reactions ranged from Elitist Defiant ("we were still right not to cover the story because it came from the National Enquirer") to self-flagellation ("we should pursue tips from anywhere") Overall, mainstream journalists engaged in more superficial self-examination than a young Alexander Portnoy (although with far less entertainment value).

Certainly, Edwards, like Portnoy, let his zipper become the center of his universe proving (again) that while truth is stranger than fiction our leading politicians have less depth than most fictional characters. But Edwards did more than torpedo his political career and image; he unwittingly unzipped a new era of how the press will cover scandal and where Americans obtain news.

The National Enquirer has been the brand name for scandal for decades, but ever since Al Gore invented the internet (sorry, I can never resist that one) it has been inevitable that the delivery of information would become faster than you can say, "I did not have sex with that woman."

While daily newspapers have struggled to join the digital age and race to put content online, they are still approaching the revolution with antediluvian views that a story isn't news until they say its news. Nothing illustrates this more than the Edwards' scandal.

For months the blogosphere was filled with rumors about Edwards and Rielle Hunter. The low hum of innuendo and suspicion exploded into a roar when the Enquirer published its account of the affair in December, 2007, naming Hunter and printing photographs of her six months pregnant. The Enquirer's report was carried in print and supplemented online.

Slate's Mickey Kaus was relentless in his pursuit of answers, and The Huffington Post -- one of the first to raise questions about Edwards -- stayed with the story even after Edwards gave his now infamous "It's lies, tabloid trash" caught-on-video denial. Daily papers and the TV networks were silent.

So Edwards, the presidential candidate and quintessential family man, continued his campaign and indeed there were two Americas; one where the self-designated mainstream media ignored a scandal that already had been documented in the Enquirer's published account, and the other America where new media asked questions relentlessly about why Rielle Hunter's never-seen "webisodes" for the Edwards campaign and why she was being taken care of by his close friend and hidden in a gated community while six months pregnant.

It wasn't until seven months later when the Enquirer caught Edwards visiting Hunter at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and sneaking out at 2:40 a.m. that mainstream media started to awake. And even then, The Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times and other top newspapers devoted little or no resources to the story. Mickey Kaus begged me to release the photographs of Edwards at the hotel, assuring me the mainstream media would then rush to cover the story. I disagreed and the Enquirer held back most of the photos, waiting for Edwards to deny he was there before showing the images.

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.

When Edwards finally admitted the affair in a faux sincere TV interview, some members of the mainstream media publicly assessed their decisions to not cover the scandal. Forced to acknowledge being beaten by the Enquirer, they referenced the publication specifically, and the blogosphere obliquely, with great asperity.

A newspaper in Indiana wrote: "The story of (Edwards') tryst was reported only by the National Enquirer, a tabloid that gives supermarkets a bad name."

The Los Angeles Times justified its lack of coverage (and ban of bloggers writing about it!) with this quote from one of its editors: "The National Enquirer is a supermarket tabloid that is accurate some of the time and inaccurate some of the time."

Canada's Globe and Mail, raising the level of discourse, claimed it was "icky" that the Enquirer had broken the story. (How do we respond to that? We're rubber, you're glue...)

Meanwhile the New York Times was rebuked by its own ombudsman who strongly concluded the paper blew it by not putting enough effort into reporting the story. Yet, Bill Keller, the Paper of Record's editor, was defiant and still approached the situation with a great sense of ennui, defending his inaction by saying the "hold-your-nose quality about The Enquirer" contributed to the lack of interest by The Times. Others simply relied on standard Elvis-UFO-Aliens-Bigfoot jokes to dismiss the Enquirer's success in light of their failure.

The voice of reason in these matters usually belongs to the Washington Post's media critic Howard Kurtz. His comments encompassed both the Enquirer and the blogosphere as he wrote: "The fact that big newspapers, magazines and networks have standards -- that is, they refuse to print every stray rumor just because it's "out there" -- is one of their strengths. But in the latter stages of this case, it made them look clueless."

Sorry Howard, but those standards are now being determined in cyberspace and any attempt to disparage the populist medium increasingly sounds like a death rattle echoing throughout the pared-down newsrooms of corporate journalism. And while the watershed moment of the shifting balance of media power will prove to be one of the most important byproducts of the Edwards affair it is not my favorite moment.

That distinction is centered on an event from just a few days ago, an event with no connection to Edwards. When two Georgia men claimed to have found Bigfoot and held a press conference to display the remains, the event was ignored by the Enquirer. Bill Keller's New York Times ran a straight-faced account, complete with photograph, in the A section.

All the news that's fit to print? Clueless indeed.

David Perel is the Editor in Chief of the National Enquirer.