Traditional media acted with predictable arrogance for ten months in ignoring tabloid and blog stories about John Edwards' philandering. Also utterly predictable: The self-flagellation now occurring on how the story was missed and what it means for the future of newspapers. Yes, if there's one story the public eats up more than a sex scandal complete with love child, it's yet another navel-gaze at media ethics and economics! Reporters for the Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal all shared their thoughts on the matter. But the fact that they waited, or had to wait, so long to do so hints that their bosses are missing the point.
Here's Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, whose newspaper in the recent past trashed the National Enquirer, which owned the story, and also implicitly trashed the story even assuming it was true. Via Kurt'z CNN show:
It almost became a conspiracy of silence by the media... I think at that point we should have earlier than we did told readers, told viewers what we knew and what we didn't know.
One gets the sense that the Times' David Carr may have shared similar thoughts at his own newspaper, if only because the media reporter has helped pushed the Gray Lady deeper into blogging and even into slightly whimsical video reports.
On Kurtz's show, Carr called Edwards' admission "a tribute to [National Enquirer editor] David [Perel] and his reporters." He later wrote that it showed how, instead of editors, "consumers... now drive the news process."
It doesn't take much courage to allow this sort of hand-wringing after some of the allegations against Edwards have been proven true via Edwards' limited TV confession. But most of what's being admitted — that the media should have engaged the story earlier for readers' sake, that consumers and not editors decide what's news, and that traditional media hurt themselves by ignoring the story — would have been just as true if the charges had proven false. But would there have been any self-flagelation by the traditional media then? Doubtful.
The lesson for the traditional media in the Edwards scandal, as Carr and Kurtz seem to grasp, is not just that the Enquirer is a surprisingly reliable source of information, or that, as some bloggers have pointed out, John Edwards has more political relevance than was widely assumed. It's that editors and publishers and producers need to unshackle their definition of news, and drop many of the torturous tests they apply to interesting but controversial stories.
The people who call the shots at large newspapers and TV networks weren't willing to do that a week ago. Why would they be willing to do so now?