The National Enquirer has thrown its hat in the ring for a 2010 Pulitzer Prize, seeking official recognition from the media Brahmins for its ownership of the John Edwards sex scandal. Said Brahmins are harrumphing, and here's why they're wrong.
There's no question that the Enquirer humiliated the institutional political press with its revelations about Edwards' infidelity, Rielle Hunter's pregnancy, the potentially illegal use of campaign cash for hush money, and the existence of a federal grand jury investigation into the matter. The Enquirer may traffic in "tabloid trash," but the facts of the Edwards story are squarely and profoundly in-bounds when it comes to the sort of newsgathering that we expect from America's vaunted political press corps, and they didn't do it. While the Enquirer may have blown the Anderson Cooper Haitian baby story, the exposure of Edwards' pathological lies and frantic corruption is precisely the sort of journalistic behavior that the Pulitzer Prizes were designed to encourage.
To get a sense of just how exclusive the Enquirer's coverage was, it's worth reviewing the timeline. The Enquirer's first story on the affair—confirming whiffs of what Mickey Kaus calls "undernews" that were first raised by the Huffington Post's Sam Stein in September 2007—appeared in October 2007. Two months later, in December, the Enquirer followed up with news that Rielle Hunter was pregnant with Edwards' love child. A month after that, he came in second in the Iowa caucuses. Here's the New York Times' coverage of Edwards' endorsement of Barack Obama in May 2008—a full seven months after the Enquirer's first scoop:
John Edwards gave his long-awaited endorsement to Senator Barack Obama, bolstering Obama's efforts to rally the Democratic Party around his candidacy and offering potential help in his attempts to win over working-class white voters in the general election this autumn.
Needless to say, it made no mention of the scandal. Indeed, throughout the entire closely fought 2008 primary season, the Times and every other newspaper that thinks itself worthy of a Pulitzer treated Edwards as a viable political force and not the soon-to-implode liability that any reader of the Enquirer knew him to be. The Times wouldn't print the name "Rielle Hunter" until August 9, 2008, almost a full year after the Enquirer's first story.
By that point, the Enquirer had brutally established that Edwards is a liar by publishing a photograph of him holding his daughter in a Beverly Hills hotel room, caught him red-handed hiding in the hotel bathroom to avoid a reporter, broken the news that Hunter was paid $15,000 a month for her silence by a wealthy Edwards campaign donor, and reported exclusively that a federal grand jury was probing Edwards' use of campaign funds to keep Hunter happy.
Confronted with the notion that this work merits consideration for a Pulitzer, terrified establishment gatekeepers have scurried to throw up various procedural or circumstantial roadblocks in order to avoid having to admit the truth, which is that they don't believe purveyors of "tabloid trash" deserve entry into the tweedy confines of Pulitzer-dom—irrespective of whether that trash is a) true and b) of central importance in determining the character and honesty of a man who was a hair over 3 million votes from the vice presidency. We'll take them in turn:
1) The National Enquirer Is a Magazine, Not a Newspaper
"We checked the Enquirer Web site, and it apparently calls itself a magazine. Under our rules, magazines (both print and Web versions) and broadcast entities are ineligible," Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler told ABC News. Aw, too bad kids—so close! That the National Enquirer is quite plainly a weekly newspaper is beyond doubt to anyone who has actually seen a copy, and the Pulitzer has been awarded in the past to weekly newspapers—Portland, Oregon's Willamette Week won for investigative reporting in 2005. But it is true that the Pulitzer's rather spare eligibility criteria [pdf] make clear that "magazines...are not eligible." And it is also true that the Enquirer's parent company AMI used to describe the paper as "the ORIGINAL celebrity entertainment magazine" in its media kit (though it has since upgraded it to a "newspaper"). But if periodicals that describe themselves as magazines are ineligible for the Pulitzer Prize, someone should tell that to Gregory L. Vistica, who was named a Pulitzer finalist in 2002 for "his enterprising and nuanced reporting that disclosed Senator Bob Kerrey's role in a massacre during the Vietnam War." That nuanced reporting appeared in the New York Times Magazine, a weekly magazine that describes itself as a magazine on a weekly basis, on the cover, right after "New York Times."
2) If the Enquirer Did Publish Any Pulitzer-Worthy Reporting, It Was in 2007 and 2008, Not 2009, Which the Next Pulitzer Covers
According to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, the Enquirer's "most significant disclosures came in 2007 and 2008, and this year's Pulitzers will honor material published in 2009." It's true that the Enquirer's initial revelations should have been honored by previous Pulitzers. But in 2009, the paper broke the story of the grand jury investigation and offered repeated scoops on the testimony of Hunter and Edwards aide Andrew Young. The involvement of federal law enforcement is arguably more Pulitzer-worthy than the tawdry-but-legal stuff about affairs and a love child. And the Pulitzer committee has been forgiving of temporal anomalies in the past: In 1989, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer won "for their 15-month investigation [into] the Tax Reform Act of 1986." If it was a fifteen-month investigation, it follows that three months of it fell outside the scope of the 1989 Pulitzers.
3) No One Wins a Pulitzer for Something So Vulgar as a "Scoop"
Arizona State University journalism professor Tim McGuire argues that "the Pulitzer is never awarded for 'newsbreaks' or scoops. Even in the breaking news category, writing, depth, texture and context are all rewarded.... I contend there is no precedent for 'good scoops' winning the big prize." It's hard to argue against the notion that the Enquirer lacks "texture," by which McGuire means an Ivy League pedigree and editors who toss back scotch at ASNE every year. Still, when the New York Times won last year for breaking the news of Elliot Spitzer's hooker-love—Hey look! A newspaper won a Pulitzer for reporting on a politician's infidelity!—it was for "authoritative, rapid-fire reports," not "depth" or "texture." Likewise, when the Times' James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won in 2006 for their stories on the Bush domestic wiretapping scheme, it wasn't for the writing or the context—it was for the breathtaking revelation that Bush had initiated a domestic wiretapping scheme. Same thing with the Washington Post's Dana Priest, who won that year for exposing the CIA's "black sites" in Europe. Those were enormous "scoops," and that's why they won. McGuire's invocation of the "breaking news category" should be a tip-off that he's struggling to come up with a rational non-clubby justification to blackball the Enquirer—that category is almost exclusively reserved to reward coverage of major public events like blizzards and mass shootings. It almost never goes to exclusive stories.
4) The Enquirer Practices Checkbook Journalism
So what? The Pulitzer rules have nothing to say on paying sources. The merits of the practice can and should be debated, but we'd submit that if news outlets that don't pay for news miss stories about presidential candidates who father children out of wedlock and make sex tapes of themselves fucking their pregnant mistresses while news outlets that do pay for news don't miss them—well, maybe there's something to it. Checkbook journalism certainly helped the New York Times scoop the competition in 1912, when it paid a Titanic survivor $1,000 for his story. The Times won its first Pulitzer six years later.
5) Sex Scandals Aren't Pulitzer-Worthy
Ask Elliot Spitzer. Or Maureen Dowd.
6) The National Enquirer Is Gross and We Hate It and Over Our Dead Bodies Will It Disgrace the Hallowed Name of Joseph Pulitzer
At least McGuire is honest: "I am convinced there will be bias in the jury room and on the board against that particular publication." Also, it's worth pointing out that Joseph Pulitzer was a master of "tabloid trash" and would have leapt all over the Edwards story.
This last argument is the only real reason to deny the Enquirer a Pulitzer Prize this year. The test is whether the cloistered, priestly caste that hands them out will be shameless and blind enough to adopt it. They had the goods. They deserve the prize.