LAT's Rutten on Edwards Affair: 'Old Media Dethroned'; Well, Maybe

EdwardsYesterday, in a stinging indictment of his Old Media colleagues' la-la-la treatment of the story of John Edwards's affair with Rielle Hunter, Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten asserted that Edwards "may have ended his public life but he certainly ratified an end to the era in which traditional media set the agenda for national political journalism."

I'll get to Rutten's mostly perceptive points in a bit.

That's because recent developments indicate that Edwards may still be believe he can eventually re-enter public life, and they are relevant to Rutten's assertion:

  • For starters, he deliberately tried to minimize the damage of his revelations by scheduling his interview to appear on ABC's Nightline on a slow-news Friday night (full video is here). It also "just happened" to be the same night as the Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing. (Oops -- Marisa Guthrie at Broadcasting & Cable's BC Beat Blog reports that Edwards was furious with ABC for revealing the news mid-afternoon on Friday, giving the story more exposure than he had hoped for. He really expected ABC not to promote it?).
  • In the interview, Edwards stated that he is not the father of Hunter's child, and that he would gladly submit to a DNA paternity test to prove it. Many viewers may have seen that as a bold assertion.
  • But it turns out (HT Hot Air) that, according to a Washington Post story by Lois Romano and Howard Kurtz, Hunter "won't pursue DNA testing." How convenient.
  • Finally, as Noel Sheppard of NewsBusters noted yesterday, Elizabeth Edwards attempted to mend fences with the Far Left by putting up a post at (where else?) Daily Kos.

The reaction of Daily Kos commenters is predictably mixed, but enough of them are favorable to make it appear that an attempt to return to politics by Edwards is not inconceivable. Here are a few of those:

  • (comment link) "It seems likely to me that Edwards will go on to be an effective advocate to end poverty. I hope so."
  • (comment link) "I think John Edwards will make a great Attorney General. I know John and Elizabeth Edwards will continue to fight for working people."
  • (comment link) "John Edwards is still a fine human being, of course. The preponderance of his performance in the public realm has been of great benefit to many."
  • (comment link) "I was upset when I found out about this earlier today, but I still think that John Edwards is a Great American."
  • (comment link) "I'd vote for him in November if he were on the ticket."
  • (comment link) "I still believe John Edwards is the best and most qualified person to be Attorney General in the upcoming Obama administration."

With all of this in mind, let's get back to Rutten (bolds are mine):

From the start, the Edwards scandal has belonged entirely to the alternative and new media. The tabloid National Enquirer has done all the significant reporting on it -- reporting that turns out to be largely correct -- and bloggers and online commentators have refused to let the story sputter into oblivion.

..... Like other commentators, he repeatedly alleged that a double standard that favored Democrats applied to the story. 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. (Further, as far as I know, Bennett has never run for public office. -- Ed.)

..... What's really significant here is the cone of silence the nation's major newspapers -- including The Times -- and the cable and broadcast networks dropped over this story when it first appeared in the tabloid during the presidential primary campaign. Next, the Enquirer reported that the unmarried Hunter was pregnant. Still no mainstream media interest. Indeed, never in recent journalistic history have so many tough reporters so closely resembled sheep as those members of the campaign press corps who meekly accepted Edwards' categorical dismissal of the Enquirer's allegations.

..... It's interesting that what finally forced Edwards into telling the truth was a mainstream media organization. ABC News began investigating the Edwards affair in October, but really began to push after the Beverly Hilton allegations. When ABC confronted Edwards with its story (which confirmed "95% to 96%" of the tabloid's reporting, according to the network), he admitted his deception.

With that admission, the illusion that traditional print and broadcast news organizations can establish the limits of acceptable political journalism joined the passenger pigeon on the roster of extinct Americana.

Well Tim, maybe, and maybe not.

If John Edwards's political career is indeed over, it will indeed be a powerful lesson to the media that the news is what matters, not whether it helps or hurts any particular ideology, party, or politician. They'll probably have to re-learn it a few times, but the Edwards saga will have been an important milestone in accelerating the learning curve.

But if John Edwards is somehow able to make a political comeback, traditional media will have every incentive to engage in similar la-la-la behavior for future politicians they favor. They will believe, and rightly so, that the way they covered for Edwards saved him from a disastrous downfall during the primaries and salvaged his viability for a later time. They will be that much more reluctant to dig, and much more inclined to deride the tabloids and basement-dwelling bloggers.

The general tone of much of the reaction and many of the specific comments over at Kos seem to indicate that an Edwards comeback in some form is not impossible. As such, the direction of future traditional media coverage relating to stories that have first surfaced elsewhere -- particularly stories that would hurt the left, its organizations, or its politicians if widely known -- is, sadly, still up for grabs.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.