WASHINGTON — Reporters don't like being beaten on a major political story, especially by a supermarket tabloid. And being beaten up over not reporting one is even less appealing.
But a sexual affair can have just two people who know the truth. Without witnesses, documents, photographs or some form of irrefutable evidence pointing to the truth, news organizations will not endanger their own integrity.
That made it difficult to prove — and to print — the rumors that John Edwards had cheated on his seriously ill wife while running for president. Reporters were left to poke around the edges of a potentially career-ending scandal in search of an opening.
"It's not like they didn't know it was there," said Mark Feldstein, a former investigative reporter who teaches journalism at George Washington University.
"Proof is the biggest issue," Feldstein said. "The National Enquirer is not well-regarded as a news source by the news media."
Last year the National Enquirer published a story alleging that Edwards had an extramarital affair. It reported last month that the former senator had fathered a "love child." Readers of the popular if trashy weekly — perhaps some who only glance at the headlines at the checkout counter — joined the political enemies of the handsome Democrat in asking why other news media were not carrying the story.
Confirming the story
So did many of those who live in the blogosphere, where the Enquirer story was taken as fact in spite of its anonymous sources. Where, they asked, were the reports on CNN, in The New York Times, on the news wire of The Associated Press? The AP had a fair number of inquiries by phone and e-mail as to when it would report the Edwards affair.
The answer for the AP and many other news media was simple: When it could be confirmed. And it never was confirmed to the AP's satisfaction or, apparently, to the satisfaction of others until Edwards himself owned up to the infidelity in an interview with ABC News.
"We began pursuing the story soon after it first appeared. But the standard for proof in this kind of intimate behavior is and should be very high," said Michael Oreskes, AP's managing editor for U.S. news. "Better to get it right even if we couldn't get it first.
After Edwards dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination, questions about his marital fidelity lost much of their relevance to the presidential race. Yet the affair still made news, even if he timed his confession for a Friday in August on the opening day of the Summer Olympics to soften the impact of a sex scandal.
Efforts had failed to find someone who could reveal the facts or to uncover a document linking Edwards to 42-year-old Rielle Hunter. No father is listed on the birth certificate, which the AP and other news organizations had obtained, and other evidence such as Edwards' political action committee paying her $100,000 for videos was only circumstantial.
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That left little for reporters. The AP had been among those reporting in October 2007 that Edwards flatly stated that the Enquirer's initial story was false — a lie, he now admits. Still, the opening allowed news organizations to report what they otherwise stayed away from.
The process repeated itself a few weeks ago when the Enquirer reported that Edwards had paid a late-night visit to Hunter and her child. He called the allegation "tabloid trash" when a reporter asked about it on July 23 — not exactly a lie but certainly a description designed to deceive. Again, most news organization were loath to pick up the new Enquirer report, beyond the denial, and those who could have revealed the truth remained silent.
"I think the mainstream news media were responsible for not airing it and not printing it earlier. There really wasn't anything to report," Feldstein said. "If the story were false, it would be a tremendously hurtful thing for his family and professionally lethal to him."
Reporters looked for indirect ways to get at the story. The Raleigh News & Observer and others reported this week that the rumors and Edwards' silence about them were affecting plans for him to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Within days, Edwards broke his silence, an event sure to burst the dam that held back details about the affair, predictions for Edwards' future and criticism over how the news media got scooped by a publication they don't respect.
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