Here is the most telling exchange from John Edwards’s interview with ABC’s Bob Woodruff, in which the Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee admitted an extramarital affair: Woodruff: There are reports that there was money paid to try to cover up this affair. Was there?
Edwards: Can I just say everything you’re saying—there are reports, there are allegations— these are all things in the supermarket tabloids, which make the most outrageous allegations every week. So that’s the—start with where the source of this information comes. Edwards went on to deny the allegation that he paid to help cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter (née Lisa Druck): “That’s a lie. An absolute lie. Which is typical in these kind of cases.” He also denied being the father of Hunter’s child: “Not true. Published in a supermarket tabloid, but no, that is absolutely not true.”
It’s a common enough lawyer’s tactic to try to discredit unfavorable testimony by impeaching the witness. The trouble for Edwards is that the National Enquirer had proved more credible in this case than he, the defendant/lawyer, had. The Enquirer, after all, claimed that Edwards had had an affair with Hunter—an “outrageous allegation” Edwards finally admitted to after denying it for months. Meanwhile, the respectable press had largely avoided the story, so much so that it was news that it was now covering it. “Mainstream Media Finally Pounce on Edwards’ Affair” read a Los Angeles Times headline posted on the web the same day Edwards’s ABC interview aired:
The mainstream media’s near-silence about a tabloid report that former presidential candidate John Edwards had an extramarital affair with a campaign worker ended abruptly Friday when he admitted the relationship to ABC News. The cable news networks immediately pounced on the story, broken by the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer last year but largely unaddressed by major news organizations until Edwards’ admission. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all had extensive coverage of the scandal throughout the afternoon, and the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post quickly posted stories on their websites.
Several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, had been pursuing the story prior to Friday…. The Los Angeles Times was unable to confirm the details in the Enquirer reports, said Craig Turner, an editor who oversees front-page stories for the paper. “All I can say is that we’re not in the business of printing things we don’t know to be true,” Turner said. “The problem with a story like this is that it’s very, very difficult to ascertain the truth until one of the people steps forward.” The Times story did not, however, mention the memo an editor named Tony Pierce had sent to the paper’s bloggers, which had been reported two weeks earlier by Slate’s Mickey Kaus:
Hey bloggers, There has been a little buzz surrounding John Edwards and his alleged affair. Because the only source has been the National Enquirer we have decided not to cover the rumors or salacious speculations. So I am asking you all not to blog about this topic until further notified. If you have any questions or are ever in need of story ideas that would best fit your blog, please don’t hesitate to ask. Keep rockin, Tony
The New York Times titled its story-about-the-story “Reticence of the Mainstream Media Becomes a Story Itself”:
The New York Times looked into the Enquirer reports last fall, though none too aggressively, editors said. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said in an e-mail message that Mr. Edwards’s dark-horse status and the “added hold-your-nose quality about The Enquirer” contributed to the lack of interest by The Times and the mainstream media generally.
Like [the Washington Post’s Leonard] Downie, he said that the questions seemed irrelevant once Mr. Edwards was out of the race, but that recently, The Times had “tried to ascertain whether the cloud generated by The Enquirer’s reporting had influenced the Obama campaign in its thinking about a future role for Edwards.” It’s a reasonable enough argument that once Edwards dropped out of the presidential race, he was a private citizen. He neither held nor was seeking office, and thus—barring a vice presidential or other nomination—his personal life arguably was none of anyone’s business.
This defense, however, falls apart in view of the saturation coverage Edwards’s affair got after he admitted it. If it wasn’t a major story to begin with, why did Edwards’s confession make it one? In an e-mail to Kaus, Michael Kinsley, a liberal editor who once ran the editorial page of the L.A. Times, offered another argument for why this was legitimate news:
The MSM told a story about Edwards—they told it often and loud—it was probably one of the best-known and totally accepted stories of the 2008 campaign: John loyally standing by his loyal wife as she deals with cancer. If the story isn’t true, they should run a correction. My god, look at the things they run corrections over—the spelling of people’s names, and so on. Yet they’re leaving this huge story uncorrected, and leaving their readers misinformed. No? L.A. Times media critic Tim Rutten also wrote that Edwards was the beneficiary of “a double standard that favored Democrats”:
Like the Enquirer’s reporting, the special-treatment charge is largely true, as anyone who recalls the media frenzy over conservative commentator and former Cabinet secretary William Bennett’s high-stakes gambling would agree.
Not everyone agreed. Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times, criticized his paper for ignoring the story, but summarily absolved it of the charge of bias:
"John Boyle of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said, 'I hope you will find the time to tell me why this news story is not reported by your paper.' Some readers, like Bert A. Getz Jr. of Winnetka, Ill., were sure they already knew the answer: liberal bias.
I do not think liberal bias had anything to do with it."
In his 15 months as public editor, Hoyt has raised the question of liberal bias several times, only to pass over or dismiss it:
• September 23, 2007: Hoyt acknowledged that the Times’s discounting of ad space for a scurrilous MoveOn.org ad “gave fresh ammunition to a cottage industry that loves to bash The Times as a bastion of the ‘liberal media,’” but offered no argument as to why this “bashing” is unjustified.
• February 24, 2008: After the Times published unsubstantiated rumors that John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, Hoyt opined that McCain “may benefit, at least in the short run, from a conservative backlash against the ‘liberal’ New York Times,” but again offered no opinion on whether that backlash would be warranted.
• April 13, 2008: “Though readers like [Ellen] Shire [who had written a letter criticizing columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich]—and I hear from many of them—may suspect that the views on the opinion pages infect the news coverage, I see no evidence of that.”
Back in 2004, Hoyt predecessor Daniel Okrent raised the question of whether the Times is a liberal newspaper and answered, “Of course it is.” Maybe Okrent was wrong and Hoyt is right, but the latter has produced a lot less substantiation for his opinion than the Enquirer does for its stories.
James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.