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Four reasons why the mainstream media HAD to move slowly on the John Edwards story



So let me get this straight: When the New York Times used anonymous sources to report that people close to John McCain were concerned about his close friendship with a female lobbyist, that was an example to some of an unfair hit piece.Hunter_edwards_080808_mn

But when mainstream media outlets refused to pass along a report that a former Democratic presidential candidate had an affair which produced a child -- based on anonymous sources who might have been paid for their participation -- THAT was an abdication of journalistic responsibility?

As the media post-mortems spread on the National Enquirer's John Edwards story, it's become obvious that these pieces lie in a no-man's land of ethical bugaboos and social squeamishness. There's no denying the appeal: Another boyishly handsome, charismatic Democratic politician felled by an inability to stay faithful to his wife -- this time, while she was just recovered from cancer.

EnquireredwardsNow that Edwards has admitted an affair, lots of folks in the punditocracy are leaping to denounce the mainstream media for ignoring a story the National Enquirer broke 10 months ago. I'm wondering how many of these types of stories critics actually have reported themselves.

Because, to this journalist, there were some very good reasons the MSM (mainstream media) didn't pass along the Enquirer's reporting and couldn't nail down the story sufficiently to report it themselves.

Click below to read my four reasons... 

Edwardsenquirerwebpage The Enquirer used anonymous sources -- These were some serious charges to make without naming information sources. And of all the media outlets which now say they were looking into the story including CNN, ABC News and, none unearthed a named source to confirm the story. Doesn't help that The Enquirer has a checkered history. It busted Jesse Jackson on his love child and outed Rush Limbaugh's drug problems, but also lost libel lawsuits filed by Carol Burnett and Kate Hudson and retracted a story on the Elizabeth Smart case for which it had paid $20,000. 

The Enquirer paid its sources -- Mainstream news organizations don't pay sources for information, maintaining that such payments create too much incentive to distort the data. So wouldn't publishing a story which the Enquirer paid to land -- the newspaper's editor admitted on CNN's Reliable Sources show Sunday payments were involved -- be the same thing? 

The Enquirer's story still hasn't been totally proven -- Edwards denies fathering Rielle Hunter's child, has offered to take paternity test and has suggested the newspaper's photos of him holding a baby at the Beverly Hills Hotel are false. The newspaper hasn't explained why it has no usable photos of Edwards at the hotel, since it had several reporters and a photog staking him out there. 

Edwardspodium The importance of the story diminished when Edwards dropped out of the presidential race and seemed a long shot choice for VP -- One way you judge the importance of such a story is by judging the importance of the subject. Given that Edwards wasn't a presidential candidate and wasn't expected to be chosen as Barack Obama's running mate, was it advisable for news outlets to trumpet allegations based on anonymous sources and supposition?

My perspective is hardly popular: even the New York Times' ombudsman faults his newspaper for not looking into the story closer. But the fact that no one in mainstream media confirmed this story before Edwards' acknowledgment it tells me it was a story that journalists likely could not have published without disregarding some of their most important ethical standards.

So, is a story about the philandering of a former presidential candidate really worth discarding those ethical standards? And what kind of news product will will have left once that decision is made?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:50pm]


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