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Edwards’ affair earns Enquirer some respect

In breaking the story around former presidential candidate John Edwards' infidelity, The National Enquirer has beaten mainstream papers at their own game.
Image: Barry Levine
Barry Levine, The National Enquirer's executive editor, says mainstream papers may look down on his paper, but \"we beat them at their own game.\"
/ Source: The New York Times

The call came into The National Enquirer’s Los Angeles tip line — the kind advertised in the supermarket tabloid with the promise “We’ll Pay Big for Your Celebrity Gossip” — in late September 2007. The message was that a woman named Rielle Hunter had been hinting at an affair with John Edwards, then a candidate for president.

Within an hour, the tip was on the desk of Barry Levine, The Enquirer’s executive editor in New York. His readers didn’t care about politics for politics’ sake, not as long as there were rocky Hollywood marriages to be covered and celebrity cellulite photos to be snapped. But Mr. Levine was intrigued when he looked up Mr. Edwards on Google and found a poll saying that the candidate and his wife, Elizabeth, had one of the most admired marriages of all the candidates.

That meant Mr. Edwards was on a pedestal, and revelations of an affair could knock him off it — in line with The Enquirer’s mission. “It still shows the reader that wealthy people, rich people, people who they may admire — when you take away the money, have the same types of problems that they have in real life,” he said.

Pulling together reporters to dig into the rumor, Mr. Levine began something that once seemed unthinkable: not only the downfall of a presidential candidate with a meticulous image, but, for the sensational tabloid, something resembling respectability.

By being the first and, largely, the only publication pursuing the Edwards story through his denials of the affair and of fathering a child out of wedlock, The Enquirer is under consideration for a Pulitzer Prize, and it has strong support for its bid from other journalists. The success has Mr. Levine considering opening a Washington bureau to look for more dirt among politicians.

It’s a curious time for The Enquirer to be soaring. Its parent company, American Media, nearly went bankrupt last year.

A former editor claims the company pressured Tiger Woods into appearing on the cover of the sister publication Men’s Fitness in 2007 in exchange for spiking an Enquirer article on his infidelity. (David Pecker, American Media’s chief, declined to comment on that, but says he does not trade favors for coverage).

'Barbarians at the gate'
On The Enquirer’s home turf, the competition has never been more intense, with organizations like TMZ as well as traditional papers pecking away at personal lives of celebrities.

But The Enquirer stays ahead by doing what other papers won’t. It threw reporters at the Edwards story, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on expenses, conducted stakeouts, paid informants and ran pieces based entirely on anonymous sources.

Those tactics have set off a debate about whether The Enquirer should even be eligible for a Pulitzer, the most prestigious journalism award. “When you pay people for information, the information itself often becomes distorted,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, though she said she supported its Pulitzer entry.

Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, said he was fine with it as long as The Enquirer did not pay sources on the articles in the award entries. Mr. Levine said his paper didn’t pay sources for the articles but was unapologetic about using the tactic in earlier reporting on Mr. Edwards.

“I think we’re the barbarians at the gate,” Mr. Levine said of mainstream newspapers. “We represent a lot of what they look down on, but at the same time, we beat them at their own game.”

Still, their own game has strict rules. Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, said in an e-mail message that while the prize committee would not discuss entries or speculate about outcomes, any United States text-based newspaper that publishes at least weekly can enter.

“It is up to a jury and then the Pulitzer Board to determine merit,” Mr. Gissler said. And, he added, the prize is for work solely in 2009. Most of the scoops on Mr. Edwards came before that.

After that first tip, on Sept. 24, 2007, The Enquirer began to untangle the story. By its Oct. 22 issue that year, it had dug up enough sources around the campaign and Ms. Hunter to confirm at least talk of an affair. The editor then, David Perel, ran an article about Mr. Edwards’s infidelity but withheld the woman’s name.

The tabloid was playing Ping-Pong journalism, batting the ball across the table and seeing what bounce it got. Soon, bloggers identified the woman as Ms. Hunter, based on the description of her in the article — she had been a videographer working on Mr. Edwards’s campaign.

That led to additional tips that Ms. Hunter was pregnant, and was being moved to a gated community in North Carolina, near Andrew Young, an aide to Mr. Edwards who recently published a tell-all book, “The Politician.” The paper promptly rented a cottage there to get its reporters through the guarded front gates.

When they could not find her in the community, the reporters assembled a list of local obstetricians. Since Enquirer reporters cannot pay off medical officials — they might be violating health care privacy laws — they asked contacts for information about her doctor and narrowed the search to two or three offices, which they staked out for more than two weeks.

It was a day of record-setting temperatures in the Cary, N.C., area on Wednesday, Dec. 12, with a high of 80 degrees forecast. And that happened to be the day Ms. Hunter, in a light sweater and jeans — and obviously pregnant — had an appointment. “If she was wearing a heavy coat that day, we wouldn’t have been able to get the shot,” Mr. Levine said.

A photographer took a flurry of shots as she walked by.

After The Enquirer contacted Mr. Edwards’s camp for comment, the tabloid received calls from lawyers for Mr. Young and Ms. Hunter insisting that Mr. Young was the child’s father. But the Enquirer team didn’t buy it.

“I don’t know a lot of men with the gumption to take their pregnant mistress home to their wife,” Mr. Perel said. In its Dec. 31 issue, The Enquirer splashed its scoop across three pages, “John Edwards Love Child Scandal,” with seven reporters’ bylines.

Then: nothing. There was virtually no mainstream media follow-up. Today, some news organizations say they couldn’t back up the allegations, and others say the reports seemed untrustworthy, coming from a tabloid. The other reason was political. By late January 2008, Mr. Edwards had ended his presidential bid.

“When the story hit with a thud, after all that work, there were a couple of days of disbelief and trying to push our contacts at other media — ‘go after the story, it’s there,’ ” Mr. Perel said. “Once it became clear that Edwards was just going to dismiss it with dissembling remarks, ‘tabloid trash,’ that’s when we regrouped and I said, ‘This is not over.’ ”

By summer 2008, the Enquirer had a tip that Mr. Edwards was meeting Ms. Hunter and the baby at the Beverly Hilton. Some Enquirer reporters checked in, and found the rooms reserved for Ms. Hunter. (Its reporters often pay receptionists, but in this case they had instructions not to approach the staff at the celebrity-friendly hotel, as the employees might warn Mr. Edwards.)

The reporters watched Mr. Edwards enter through a side door; hours later, as he exited an elevator, they pounced, and he retreated into a men’s restroom.

On July 22, The Enquirer posted an article saying Mr. Edwards “was caught visiting his mistress and secret love child,” and in its Aug. 18 issue it published photos that it said showed him playing with the baby at the hotel.

The story, finally, had gone mainstream. On Aug. 8, as early copies of the Enquirer edition with the photos appeared on newsstands, Mr. Edwards went on “Nightline” to acknowledge the affair and the episode at the Beverly Hilton. He issued a statement to that effect that day, though he would not acknowledge paternity until months later.

With the racy bits over, The Enquirer stayed on the story. Its Pulitzer submissions from 2009 include news of a grand jury investigation into whether Mr. Edwards had misused campaign funds to pay Ms. Hunter, and an Edwards DNA test.

'Very high-quality journalism'
Mr. Gissler said the Pulitzer committee questioned The Enquirer’s eligibility only because it at times called itself a magazine rather than a newspaper, and not over paying for sources. The Enquirer proved it was a newspaper, Mr. Gissler said, and its entry was approved. Mr. Gissler declined to comment on its chances to win, or whether paying for sources would affect its bid.

“Very high-quality journalism has been the hallmark of the Pulitzer Prizes, and we leave it up to the jury to determine the three most distinguished pieces in each category,” he said.

Even if it does not make it to the Pulitzer short list, The Enquirer is still getting an awkward embrace from traditional journalism. But for Mr. Levine, that is not great news.

“The next time the mainstream media’s not going to wait as long as they did,” he said. “It’ll be reported in a much more aggressive manner. I don’t think there will ever be another chance to have a story to ourselves.”

This story, "The National Enquirer Earns Some Respect," originally appeared in The New York Times.