If you want an efficient, capsule summary of why you haven't read anything in newspapers or seen anything on major network news about how John Edwards ran from National Enquirer reporters in a hotel parking garage, about how he hid in a bathroom for 15 minutes, and about how he was holed up overnight with his alleged mistress and love child — an awesome, amazing story — parse these three revealing sentences from Washington Post "gossip" columnist Roxanne Roberts, in response to one of many persistent questions about the scandal in an online chat yesterday:
The Enquirer is not going to sell papers with nuance or sensitivity. I need more reporting from a credible source before I'm prepared to pass judgment. I'm not sure Edwards is a real candidate for the VP job, but if so will have to address this one way or another.
It's important to keep in mind, when reading this odd answer, that traditional news media used to have something of a lock on the dissemination of information, and allowed themselves to be convinced that they had a bizarre duty to filter even accurate information of interest to their audiences, and to do so in the service of reinforcing various social institutions and norms, even though their jobs, their Constitutionally-protected jobs, were to do just the opposite, to disseminate information and challenge long-cherished moral codes.
This self-shackling, this corruption of a trade, has become fundamental to American news media, and in the quote above we see Roberts concisely showcasing her own deep-seated instincts.
First, there's a dig at the Enquirer, the implication that the publication threw aside the nuanced truth to sell newspapers. This sort of reflexive swipe itself lacks nuance, and ignores history. In 1994, the Times declared that, on the OJ Simpson story, the Enquirer "stands heads and shoulders above [any other publication] for aggressiveness and accuracy." Slate's Jack Shafer in 2004 offered support for the tabloid's standards, if not its presentation, in "I Believe The National Enquirer/Why Don't You?," noting, "if you correct for stylistic overkill, you find a publication that is every bit as accurate as mainstream media."
Granted, the supermarket tabloid has stumbled, including with a 2006 libel case involving Kate Hudson, which it lost, and a retracted story involving false allegations that Cameron Diaz was cheating. But so have plenty of other publications, many with fewer than the Enquirer's 1 million readers.
The there's Roberts' line about the Enquirer lacking "sensitivity." With five reporters scrambling to ask Edwards about his alleged affair, the Enquirer was certainly showing sensitivity to the truth in all its shades. Or maybe she's saying the tabloid should be sensitive to Edwards' feelings by ignoring the story, as the Washington Post and Times and others have done, as though the truth can be kept bottled up at whim, and as if it's a newspaper's role to help perpetuate a lie, to keep Elizabeth Edwards in the dark until — what? — until she passes away?
And what's with the notion that the Washington Post needs to "pass judgement" before it reports the story? Here we see most clearly how news decisions can be poisoned by social pressure. Ostensibly, the Post, like other papers, at least tries to remain objective in its news columns. Passing judgement is the last thing a reporter is encouraged to do. But when a story actually becomes interesting, say by breaking a taboo on talking about sexual infidelity, or by breaking a taboo on criticizing the government during wartime (to pick an entirely random example!), suddenly a moral justification is needed in order to publish. Because, you see, newspapers like the Times and Post still control what information we, the isolated, childlike, reading public, are exposed to! This is a very contemporary, factually accurate and democratic view of the world.
Those who do buy into the bankrupt notion that the news media are morally freighted info-arbiters can still find reason to support coverage of the Edwards scandal. As Slate's Jack Shafer argues in "Why The Press Is Ignoring The Edwards 'Love Child' Story," Edwards' marriage is fair game in the tortured calculus of media relevance because Edwards deployed his wife aggressively in the service of his campaign. In fact, covering the scandal is a moral imperative, since Republicans were quickly hit with news stories during similar scandals of the recent past (Larry Craig is cited). See how slippery things get when news editors start trying to cast moral judgements on the news?
Finally, Roberts argues there is no reason to cover the "love child" scandal unless Edwards is a viable VP candidate, because again you need an excuse to write interesting stories. Again, Slate provides a rebuttal, this time from Mickey Kaus, who points out that Edwards was in fact on the shortlist for Attorney General under would-be president Barack Obama. It is supremely arrogant for news editors to assume they have the knowledge to definitively rule out the relevance of a story that is as interesting as the Edwards affair.
At least partly for the reasons outlined by Roberts, a large number of news organizations have elected to ignore the Edwards story as of this moment. Kaus compiled a list that includes not only the Times and Washington Post but also the newsweeklies, network newscasts and even the Huffington Post ("and it's their story!").
That's actually fine — totally their prerogative. Perhaps some are even even readying Edwards stories at this moment, and just wanted to give him time to issue an official statement (beyond this non-denial on Drudge: "I don't talk about these tabloids. Tabloid trash is full of lies.") and to do more of their own reporting. Wonderful.
But to the extent the silence is due to publishers, like Roberts, intent on dictating news interest to their readers, so much so that they will ignore certain hot topics, these news organizations are mortgaging their future, and in many cases ceding valuable ground to competitors already eating deep into their profit margins.
On the bright side, for the rest of us, this process does have a way of weeding out news outlets that are all-too-eager to suppress news stories rather than publish them.
(Second-to-last picture via Peter King Watch)