Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Come on journalists, you can do better

By scipio191
By Warren Watson

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.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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