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It's Mainstream Now; Edwards Admits Affair

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In an interview with ABC News to air tonight, former Presidential candidate John Edwards admits having had an affair with a filmmaker contracted to his campaign. This is his first public admission regarding a scandal that you’ve been reading and hearing about—or, more to the point, not reading and hearing about, in large media outlets (like this one).

The story in a small nutshell: the National Enquirer first reported in December that Edwards—whose wife, Elizabeth, not only campaigned by his side but has cancer—had had a love child with Rielle Hunter. (Edwards tells ABC he did not father the baby, though he also says he did not take a paternity test.) As Edwards dismissed the story as “trash,” the Enquirer continued to publish followups after Edwards left the race, the story coming to a head when, first, an Enquirer reporter reportedly confronted Edwards in a Beverly Hills hotel where he was visiting Hunter, and later published what it said were photos of Edwards holding the baby.

Through all this, the story came up on blogs, on radio, on late-night talk shows (where Jay Leno made fun of the mainstream media for ignoring it). Meanwhile, the big newspapers, networks, newsmagazines and so forth had to decide whether to report on an unproven sex story (albeit with strong circumstantial evidence) about a man no longer running for office, with small children and a wife stricken with cancer. With a few exceptions, they (we) stayed away. The LA Times even, boneheadedly, forebade its bloggers to mention the story.

(For the record, although TIME did not cover the story, I wasn’t ordered off it; in fact, I’d mentioned to my editors several days ago that I might blog on it, and I suspect that, if anything, they were wondering when I’d get around to it. More on that in a second.)

So: should the press—the high-profile press—have run with the story more, and sooner?

When Edwards was a candidate in December, the story would have been relevant (though, to be fair, I don’t know how many other reporters may have been fruitlessly trying to pursue it). When he dropped out of the race, it was easier to argue that—unless he became a vice-presidential or other nominee—it was no longer a matter of public interest.

But in recent days, it became clear that the accusation was having real-world effects on a public matter: the third-place finisher in a major party’s campaign was possibly going to end up not speaking at its convention, and it would be hard to let that go without any explanation.

Over the past week, I’d been working on a long post about this, but hadn’t posted it, for a few reasons. First, to be honest, I kept changing my mind as to where I stood: Edwards was a public figure, but no longer in that public a position.

Second, I knew that whatever I wrote would be received as “TIME magazine says that…” though it would in fact be “A guy who writes for TIME magazine says that…” because I have no say in or particular influence on what TIME covers outside my own beat.

Finally, I knew that TIME wasn’t running anything else on the story at the time, and—while this in itself would not keep me from writing about it—I admit I hate as a reader seeing publication use the old fig leaf of: “Well, we don’t want to do this story, but let’s do the story about the media aspect of not doing the story.”

So I did what people do, which is to sit and write out the pros and cons of covering the story. And what I kept coming around to was that most of the arguments I’d heard or could think of, both for and against running the story—nearly all of them were bad, pro and con. Here, for what it’s worth, is what I came up with:

Bad reasons not to cover the story:

It’s a private matter. So is a person’s biography, actions during a war, parenting style or (for instance) being the son of a millworker. What parts of a biography are relevant to the voters’ choice is a murky question—but politicians don’t get to answer it for everyone.

It’s a pain in the ass. Let’s be honest: any reporter or editor knows what’s coming if they get anywhere near this story. I could pretty much write, in advance, the comments blasting this post for (1) raising the subject at all and (2) entertaining reasons for not covering the story. But if a story is news, it’s news.

It was in the Enquirer. As anyone who used to follow the adventures of the Weekly World News’ Space Alien knows, there are tabloids and there are tabloids. The Enquirer has gotten stories right and stories wrong. That’s why news organizations do their own reporting—they can, and should, check it out for themselves if it’s an otherwise worthwhile story.

People don’t care. No; a lot of people don’t care. Those people, for instance, elected Bill Clinton and made his approval ratings soar in the midst of the Lewinsky investigation. And they’re welcome not to care, but they don’t get to speak for the others who do care. Often the argument “people don’t care” seems more like “people shouldn’t care”; i.e., some people will care if you tell them, but they should be focused on more important things, so the media should protect them from this distraction.

His wife is sick. Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer is possibly the aspect of the story that makes the mainstream media so reluctant to touch it (though it made the affair that much more damning). But the fact is that the media doesn’t, and shouldn’t, generally consider the effects of a story on innocent people when covering news; and that journalists only seem to consider this a factor when it comes to people they know and like doesn’t help their credibility.

Because, ewwww. I know. But reporters write about awful, uncomfortable things.

And now the bad reasons to cover it:

It’s about hypocrisy, not sex. This may be the reason I despise the most, and it’s the one that the media loves to use to legitimize covering sex—or other—scandals. (Here, the argument would be that Edwards used his marriage as a campaign selling point when it suited him.) My problem with this argument—besides the fact that it’s usually a phony excuse—is that it means the media is prescribing morality. Essentially, it says that hypocrisy is worse than infidelity, or at least that it’s a more legitimate reason not to vote for someone. Why? Who appointed us Pope? Some people see sex scandals as a reason to vote against a politician only if it shows him or her to be a phony; others see the infidelity as an indictment in itself. It’s not for us to decide that one of these systems of morality is better than another. (Put another way: hypocrisy may or may not make a scandal more damaging, but that doesn’t make it more newsworthy.)

You’ll be irrelevant if you don’t. In other words, by ignoring the story while it thrives on blogs, the MSM is sabotaging its relevance and its future business. OK. Isn’t one of the millions of complaints against the MSM that it is soullessly mercenary, that it is alienating its audience by producing coverage that’s cynically intended solely to boost its bottom line? Why, then, is covering a sex scandal to keep your business solvent suddenly a virtue?

We’ll look biased if we don’t. True. And we’ll look biased if we do. We look biased now. This is where you have to let the politicians worry about appearance, not the press.

Well, _______ ran a story about _________! You could ping-pong this one back and forth until the end of time. There was the New York Times’ thinly-sourced story insinuating a John McCain affair this February, and before that, its cryptic, bizarre story speculating on “the status” of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage. Again, a story is a story or it isn’t; if it isn’t, bad precedent in the past doesn’t obligate you to repeat the same mistake eternally. But there is a lesson here: the public will forever judge you by the crappiest work you have done in the past.

It’ll be worse for ______ in the long run if it comes out later. And? Just as it isn’t reporters’ job to elect candidates, it’s not their job to vet them, either.

My bottom line: It comes down to whether the story affects a public issue. This story at least bore investigation back when Edwards was a candidate. (Whatever any of us thinks about whether an affair disqualifies someone for office, a voter has every right to take it into consideration—even if for tactical reasons—when trying to vote for their party’s nominee.) When Edwards dropped out, it was probably fair enough to ignore it: the fact that it was a story once, or might be a story in the future, did not make it a story at that time.

But with Edwards facing the possibility of getting shut out of his own party’s convention, it would have been bizarre to simply let that pass without explanation from the media. It was not a huge, earth-shattering story, but it was a story. He must have known that—and Democrats sure as hell did, “private figure” or no—hence his disclosure (on a Friday, before the opening of the Olympics).

Now, of course, the press will probably over-cover the story in compensation, because that’s what we do.

I could go on, but I’m starting to exhaust myself and probably bore you. And I have probably spent more time to come to fewer conclusions than any blog post I have ever done. I invite you to pick holes in any of my arguments above, for which I will probably not have good answers.