News has been circulating all week that John Edwards is about to be indicted for using campaign funds to help support and hide his affair with Rielle Edwards. That the National Enquirer first broke the news earlier this week hasn't stopped other sources from picking up the trail—after all, it was the Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, that first broke the story of Edwards's affair. Its work on the story was so comprehensive, and ultimately so devastating to the former presidential candidate, that many consider the Enquirer a contender for this year's Pulitzer Prize. But is the paper really worthy? We discuss today on NEWSWEEK's Rumblr, a forum to debate the issues of the day using the blog platform Tumblr. Excerpts are below. Some of the comments have been moved out of sequence for clarity and cohesion. Visit the original chat for the full transcript.
Steve Tuttle, senior writer: Hell, yes. The Enquirer should definitely be allowed to win the Pulitzer Prize. If Hitler is, indeed, still alive and living in Argentina, and their reporting proves it, why shouldn't they be honored?
Or was it for the one about Elvis meeting with Martians? Or Bat Boy getting married? Maybe I'm thinking about Weekly World News … which gets me to my point: the truth is, all media is sort of blurring into one big cosmic indecipherable orb and the typical reader doesn't know or care if he read about John Edwards in The New York Times or NEWSWEEK or the National Enquirer. If the reporting the Enquirer did on this particular story is worthy and deemed so by the Pulitzer Prize committee, why the hell not.
I remember back when we were working on our O. J. Simpson trial coverage here at NEWSWEEK, and there was always one publication that was often ahead of us and the rest of the national media. And that was the National Enquirer. We'd joke about that around the office, but you can bet we were going downstairs every week to the newsstand to pick up the latest copy. "Ha, ha, ha," we'd say, "look at all of this 'exclusive' stuff the Enquirer has," and then the laughter would trail off nervously. Then miraculously a couple of weeks later the same stuff would be out in the so-called mainstream media where it would suddenly have legitimacy. Well, legitimacy as it was measured then, anyway. It's different now. Give them the prize.
Andrew Cohen, associate editor: The only criterion for winning a Pulitzer is whether the nominee represents a "distinguished" example of journalism in its field (international, investigative, etc.) in a "newspaper" (the initial disqualifier for the National Enquirer). But "distinguished" is pretty subjective, and has in the past allowed for both coverage of sex scandals and "checkbook journalism" to win Pulitzers, so I don't see that the Enquirer is somehow disqualified from winning. To argue otherwise, I feel, is merely snobbery.
Tony Dokoupil, staff writer: We keep talking about "the Pulitzer," but journalism awards come in categories: public-service work, breaking news, investigative, national reporting. None of these fits the Edwards story, which broke in July 2008—six months after he had quit the presidential race, and ceased to be a public citizen. A juicy read, yes, but where's the journalistic value—at least as defined by Pulitzer?
Nick Summers, senior reporter: One point I'm not clear on is whether the Enquirer is entirely eligible for the prize—there are questions about whether the tabloid is technically a magazine or a newspaper, and whether reporting that was done in 2007 and 2008 is eligible for a 2009 contest.
Leaving that aside, though, there's a part of me that really hopes the Enquirer gets the Pulitzer—or at least a finalist nod. I was in Iowa and New Hampshire more or less constantly in the run-up to those early election contests, and the degree to which the Enquirer was out alone on this story cannot be overstated. The subject of John Edwards's extramarital appetites was a widely assumed/acknowledged/gossiped-about piece of information among campaign staffers and reporters, and yet no one but this tabloid was doing anything with it. When the first big Enquirer story on Edwards and Rielle Hunter came out, the widely traded joke was that they'd gotten the story wrong—but only in the sense that Hunter was the only woman Edwards wasn't sleeping with. The rest of the media were too obsessed with covering the election as a horse race that even when the Enquirer got the goods on this widely held assumption—that the haircut from North Carolina had a zipper problem—it never broke into the mainstream coverage. Even the blogs ignored it. The Enquirer was standing alone on this, and that deserves some kind of recognition.
Jessica Bennett, senior writer: They paid, yes. But they got the story!
Paying for sources is shady. It's tabloidy. It's not good journalistic practice. But the fact of the matter is: NEWSWEEK didn't get the Edwards story, the Times didn't get the Edwards story, the tabloid trash got the story—and whether or not they paid for it, it all turned out to be effing true. So, make it clear that you've paid for your sources, for sure, and all of us mainstream media elites will judge you, most definitely. But maybe we could all learn something from the Enquirer's shoe-leather reporting—and whether it happened before or after the $$ is beside the point.
Summers: To Tuttle's point about the Enquirer often leading the pack on the O. J. Simpson story: here's a fairly remarkable story by David Margolick (who now writes for NEWSWEEK) in The New York Timesacknowledging just that.
• The Pulitzer Committee has already ruled on the newspaper/magazine issue.
• The NE is in the running in the categories "Investigative Reporting" and "National News Reporting."
• The NE's reporting on Edwards began in 2007 and continued well into 2009, with the stories getting increasingly substantial and newsworthy.
What's left is the issue of how significant is its reporting on a "private citizen." With the very likely prospect of a criminal investigation, I thank that answers itself.
Bottom line: I'm not arguing that the National Enquirer should win a Pulitzer, but I don't see anything here that automatically disqualifies it.
Dokoupil: I'm not judging the Enquirer as somehow shady for paying its sources. It's a great way to get information, of course, and a totally legit practice in most industries—but not in journalism. If all media outlets did it, I'd have no beef with considering the Enquirer for an award. But since (presumably) none of the other outlets had the same advantage, it's totally unfair.
Cohen: Hold on there. Pulitzer magnets like The New York Times and Washington Post have the financial wherewithal (for e.g., foreign bureaus, travel, technology, manpower, "fixers," etc.) their smaller competitors can never hope to equal. Is that fair? Of course not. The NE is doing what all competitive organizations do: it's exploiting its relative advantages. In this case, that means paying sources and reveling in the misery of the Edwards family. The Times could do that if they wanted to. It's not illegal.
Dokoupil: This is nonsense: "The National Enquirer is doing what all competitive organizations do: it's exploiting its relative advantages." The Enquirer and the Times are not "competitive organizations" when it comes to public-affairs reporting. Their aims are different (titillation versus service), and they don't shared the same fundamental practices (paying sources versus not).
Also: can someone please tell me what public interest was served by breaking the Edwards scandal? The man was already out of the presidential race when the big confirming scoops came. He was a has-been. It'd be like Nixon or Clinton or Spitzer getting busted AFTER leaving office. It's interesting, but not really gonna impact the public good.
Cohen: As the media gurus like to say, every media organization is competing with every other (including movies, TV, radio, the Web, books, videogames) for time, attention, and "mindshare," so yes, I would contend that Enquirer, the Times, NEWSWEEK, and Perez Hilton are ALL "competitive organizations" when it comes to public-affairs reporting. It's just that they (and their readers) have differing ideas of what constitutes "public affairs."
Tuttle: Whatever happens, we all owe the Enquirer a debt of gratitude for stopping this guy in time.