WaPo's Kurtz Cops Out on Press's Failure to Follow Up on Enquirer's Edwards Affair Story
In a Page C1 column in Friday's Washington Post about the National Enquirer's plans to apply for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the John Edwards-Rielle Hunter affair and love child, Howard Kurtz delivers a completely inexcusable pass to his fellow alleged journalists in the establishment media (bold is mine, internal link is in original):
When the Enquirer first reported in 2007 that Edwards had had an affair with Hunter, the former North Carolina senator dismissed the account as tabloid trash. The rest of the media, having no independent proof, steered clear of the story, even as Edwards, aided by his cancer-stricken wife Elizabeth, was mounting an aggressive campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Howard's "no independent proof" statement is a howler on one of two possible levels. It's either false on its face (i.e., one or more establishment media reporters had the proof and suppressed it), or it reflects a complete and journalistically negligent lack of interest in a story about a man who, if things had broken differently, could conceivably have become his party's presidential nominee or even the country's chief executive. Either way, Kurtz is unforgivably easy on his fellow "professionals," especially because I have learned that one of his fellow "professionals" had plenty of clues that something was amiss even before the Enquirer's October 2007 story broke.
Readers can arrive at their own conclusion as to whether it's Door Number 1 or 2 by reading what follows, starting with the book excerpt published at New York Magazine (printer-friendly version here) from Game Change, the John Heilemann/Mark Halperin book that has garnered so much attention in previous days for other revelations.
I found two passages from that excerpt quite telling:
The Enquirer story didn’t come completely out of left field. Back in the spring, there had been whispers that Hunter had reappeared, with sightings of her at hotels where Edwards was staying. Then, over the summer, a reporter from the Huffington Post began digging into the sudden disappearance of the (Rielle Hunter-produced) webisodes from the (Edwards) One America site. The HuffPo story, published in September, was mild—full of insinuations but no direct allegations.
There was little that was elliptical about the Enquirer story that hit the streets on October 10, however. “Presidential candidate John Edwards is caught in a shocking mistress scandal that could wreck his campaign,” was the lead, and the article went on to cite a “bombshell email message” in which the other woman “confesses to a friend she’s ‘in love with John,’ but it’s ‘difficult because he is married and has kids.’ ”
... Out of view, the Edwards campaign was in damage-control mode, going into overdrive to dissuade the mainstream media from picking up the story, denouncing it as tabloid trash. Their efforts at containing the fallout were remarkably successful. The Enquirer’s exposé gained zero traction in the traditional press and almost none in the blogosphere.
Edwards’s relief was palpable, as was his gratitude to the small coterie of aides who had corralled the story. “It’s John,” he began in a voice-mail to one of them. “I just wanted to call and thank you for everything you’ve done in the past few days. It hasn’t been easy, I know that, and I want you to know how grateful I am for everything you’ve done.”
It turns out that the HuffPo reporter Heilemann and Halperin chose not to name is Sam Stein (yeah, that Sam Stein, but let's not digress). Stein's bio tells us that "he has worked for Newsweek magazine, the New York Daily News and the investigative journalism group Center for Public Integrity." That is, he's a bona fide establishment media guy.
The "insinuations" Heilemann and Halperin referred to in Stein's story ("Edwards Mystery: Innocuous Videos Suddenly Shrouded In Secrecy") included these:
In the summer of 2006, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards commissioned a series of web-based documentary shorts for his pre-announcement leadership PAC, the One America Committee. Within political circles, the videos were regarded as innovative, having successfully painted Edwards in a sympathetic, down-to-earth light.
Now, however, nearly all traces of the webisodes - as they became known - are gone. Links to them on the Internet no longer work. The Edwards campaign won't release the videos, and the production company behind the films is citing confidentiality agreements in refusing to talk.
This closed-off approach naturally aroused my interest. In the world of politics, rare is the candidate who passes on a chance for publicity. The campaign's explanation for stonewalling, moreover, struck me as dubious and at times evasive.
... A search for the filmmaker, Rielle Hunter, proved that Google does, in fact, have its limitations.
... Who is Rielle Hunter? The Newsweek item said Edwards met the aspiring actress and filmmaker in a New York City bar.
... oh, how the story and my interests have changed. No longer am I working on a piece about new media and politics - boring! Now, I just want to know why these webisodes are shrouded in such mystery.
Stein got even closer on October 10, the same day that the Enquirer broke its story ("Scrubbed: Edwards Filmmaker's Deleted Website Raises Questions"):
A set of short documentary film "webisodes" made for former Sen. John Edwards prior to his presidential candidacy continues to weave a curious web, this time involving the filmmaker.
The videos, which cost Edwards' One America Committee $114,461, were produced in 2006 by an aspiring actress/producer named Rielle Hunter, who proposed the idea to the senator in a bar in New York City. The objective was to give viewers - and presumably voters - an authentic look at the North Carolinian. But shortly after Edwards declared his White House aspirations, the footage all but disappeared from public view.
... So why was Hunter's website - which had no material related to her work with Edwards or the Edwards' campaign - taken down? Emails and calls to Midline Groove Productions went unanswered.
Moreover, why did Edwards choose someone with limited film experience to document his behind-the-scenes campaign presence - "the real John Edwards"? The Senator's campaign, likewise, did not return calls requesting comment.
Stein's reports, coupled with the National Enquirer's first story, which did not identify Hunter, could have led to any number of opportunities for "independent proof."
Stein's October 10 time stamp is 10:52 a.m.; the Enquirer's October 10 report is not time-stamped. It seems likely that the Enquirer story appeared after Stein's, perhaps even late that evening, as the first indication of reaction to the Enquirer story at the Drudge Report came at 9:30 p.m. EST on October 11. Even though he appeared to be in a position to put the pieces together, Stein did absolutely no follow-up in the ensuing couple of weeks. Stein's "oh my" interest somehow became disinterest. Even though HuffPo was by October 2007 an established favorite of establishment journalists, no one seems to have taken heed of Stein's Hunter-related work.
Stein and anyone who might have been following his work should have realized that they were inches away from flagging Hunter as the subject of the Enquirer's story and probably derailing Edwards's campaign well ahead of the earliest primaries and caucuses. Stein and others seemingly just dropped the ball. They should also have taken a "where there's smoke, there's fire" cue from what must have been shrill denials from Team Edwards.
Alternatively, it also seems more than a little possible that Stein or someone else in the media really did figure out that the Edwards affair story was real and learned of Hunter's identity, and simply buried it.
Sorry, Howard. I'm not buying the breezy "no independent proof" excuse. The establishment media's failure to take the initial Enquirer story further was inexcusable. In fact, in August 2008, you in essence said so yourself:
The Enquirer's standards aren't my standards, and I still believe that paying sources, as it did in the Edwards case, taints a story. But the paper knows how to conduct an investigation for certain kinds of stories.
That means that what the Enquirer did was worthy of follow-up. It either didn't occur or its results were buried. Inescapable conclusion: Epic fail.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.