Come on journalists, you can do better
Since everyone in the Western Hemisphere seems to have checked in on the journalism ramifications of the John Edwards affair, I thought I would join in the fun.
Actually, it isn't fun to bash traditional news organizations -- online, in print and on television -- for their slow-to-the-draw effort in revealing the former Democratic presidential candidate's shameful antics in his brazen affair with Rielle Hunter, an erstwhile filmmaker.
For a time, the story of his tryst was reported only by the National Enquirer, a tabloid that gives supermarkets a bad name. The story, which Edwards steadfastly denied, was kept alive by bloggers until ABC-TV smoked out Edwards in a primetime report on Aug. 8.
The whole escapade showed once again the ethical dilemma faced by traditional newspapers and TV in new digital information age: Get it first or get it right.
In the new paradigm, information sprouts forth online, often coming from individuals on their Web logs. Often, the information is premature and unreliable. In this instance, many outlets just couldn't nail down the Edwards story, which has been in the blogosphere for more than six months.
The more they closed in, the more a defiant Edwards continued to lie.
Traditional media organizations backed off, unwisely shunting aside the story and making only token efforts. After all, they surmised, the National Enquirer justly has a shoddy reputation for using second-hand sources and innuendo, and secondly, many bloggers shared a similar reputation for unreliability. So why take it too seriously?
But the story finally appeared, with Edwards, interviewed on primetime TV, confirming the account that had heretofore come from a questionable source. Suddenly the traditional media were at the end of darts of all shapes and sizes. And it was justified.
This was more than just a celebrity dalliance. Edwards was a serious presidential candidate who preached morality as the bedrock of his campaign. For him to demonstrate such hypocrisy in his own deeds elevates this matter into the realm of important public policy.
In a stinging rebuke of his peers, Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times, said on Aug. 10 his newspaper should have pursued the story harder. He criticized other newspapers as well. Only the newspapers in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., had put any kind of effort into confirming the National Enquirer accounts.
Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, said the story matters: "It showed John Edwards' recklessness in having an affair and the issue of whether he lied about it. I fault the news organizations for holding their noses and burying their heads," he told Editor and Publisher, a periodical that tracks developments in traditional media.
The blogosphere deserves credit for keeping the story alive in this instance, much as those bloggers -- journalist-wannabees on the Internet -- successfully kept the Swift Boat/Kerry and Dan Rather/Bush stories afloat in times past.
More serious reporting needs to be done in closing the loop on the Edwards story. Important questions remain unanswered, including the paternity of Hunter's illegitimate child and the possibility that hush money was doled out by others in the Edwards campaign.
Traditional news organizations -- usually important First Amendment watchdogs -- can do better. Let's see if well-resourced newspapers and television networks will work a little harder this time.
Where are Woodward and Bernstein when we need them most?
Watson, director of the J-Ideas First Amendment institute at Ball State University, is a lifelong journalist. He teaches reporting and editing at the Muncie, Indiana, campus.