I was going to write about other stuff, but a persistent theme that I see in the comments at Attytood and elsewhere in the sphere o' blogs and other media hangouts is that because the John Edwards sex scandal broke in the National Enquirer and because some of the facts or allegations about Edwards and his GF Rielle Hunter were out there when he was still running for president (i.e., relevant) that the mainstream media -- out of its liberal bias or whatever -- covered up for the liberal Edwards.
I don't think it's unreasonable to raise that issue, but I don't think too many of people making that argument have really thought the whole thing through -- including how a story like that is exposed in the real world.
Remember, some facts about John Edwards and Rielle Hunter were out there in late 2007 and earlier this year, and were reported in various mainstream media outlets, including the fact that the Edwards campaign has paid more than $100,000 to this woman that Edwards had met in a hotel bar - that would be Hunter -- and even that a supermarket tabloid -- that would be the Enquirer -- was alleging the two of them were doing the dirty deed. These facts were out there -- most politically engaged people all seemed to know all about them this winter.
What was unreported -- or "covered up," as some say -- was that the two really were having an affair and that Edwards had lied when asked about it. So if you wanted a mainstream news org to expose that story -- instead of the Enquirer, which ultimately did -- how would that happen?
The only sources that the mainstream media could truly use to confirm such a story would be people with direct knowledge of the affair, which would be a small circle of people that included Edwards, his wife, Hunter, and close friends of either of the two star-crossed lovers. With Edwards still dreaming of the White House and with Hunter drawing financial suupport, apparently, from the Edwards team, what motivation would there be for any of those people to freely confirm or volunteer the information about the Edwards/Hunter affair?
None, quite frankly -- certainly not in the short term, before time creates new wounds, as it usually does.
OK, but the National Enquirer was still able to get the story, so why couldn't the New York Times?
The answer is money, time, and manpower. Money doesn't seem to be a direct factor here, as I haven't seen any allegations that the Enquirer paid sources on this particular story, although supermarket tabloids have done that in the past. That's one of the few ways that people in the small closed circle who can confirm a sexual affair would ever talk about it -- but the traditional media doesn't pay for stories, period.
In this case, the Enquirer seems to have relied more on the time and manpower factor. In other words, it means a) assigning reporters and photographers to stake out the key players, mainly Edwards and Hunter, for months upon end, hoping to capture some kind of secret meeting -- which is what they finally did. It also means b) reporters spending months getting to know every possible friend and acquaintance of Hunter and Edwards who might somehow know something about the affair and -- probably after weeks of wooing -- might divulge something.
So for the Washington Post or the LA Times or whoever to have published the story before the Enquirer, they would have had to do what the Enquirer did -- assigned a team of full-time reporters to do nothing else but probe the sex life of John Edwards, even long after he left the center stage of the presidential race. (Because remember, the Enquirer had to keep dogging Edwards for six or so more months after he left the race to get this story.)
As you may have heard, most large American newspapers have been reducing their staffs and cutting back on the very expensive job of covering a 50-state election in 2008. They have already been criticized -- and rightfully so -- for focusing too much on the horserace and not so much on where the candidates stand on issues ranging from health care to education to foreign policy. To be clear, anyone making the argument that the media "covered up" for John Edwards is really saying that big papers or news orgs like the New York Times or ABC or Newsweek should take more reporters away from covering these issues that voters care about, and instead have them hanging around hotel lobbies to look for a failed candidate with an oversized sex drive.
There's a question of priorities. How is it that the Enquirer can assign a team of people to expose a presidential sex scandal, and a big newspaper or TV network can't? You probably know this, but when it comes to American politics, sex scandals are the ONLY story that the Enquirer and its rivals ever cover. It doesn't have to worry that it's ignoring how the candidates would respond to the crisis in Georgia, for example, because it doesn't care! Traditional news orgs do, however.
In fact, every campaign has had some tawdry sex-related allegation reported about it this year. Vanity Fair reported that aides to Bill Clinton were worried about his extracurricular activities; an underground network of sleazeballs urged mainstream reporters for months to report a sex-and-drugs allegation about Barack Obama from a totally unreliable source, and the New York Times reported that John McCain was so close to an attractive young lobbyist named Vicki Iseman that aides were worried it looked like the two were having an affair.
So, if you believe that the media "covered up" for John Edwards, then you also believe that major American news organizations should take reporters away from the campaign trail or pull them off stories about where the candidates stand on the gasoline crisis or Afghanistan so they can spend months -- and that's how long it takes -- to definitively prove whether McCain was having sex with Vicki Iseman, or to look again into the discredited charges made against Obama, or -- even though Hillary Clinton has dropped out of the race (I think) -- prove that Bill is still having sexual relations with those women.
If you think the media is covering up for Edwards but should not aggressively be probing these stories, including the sex life of John McCain, then you are being a hypocrite.
What's the solution? Maybe there should be a news organization that makes the sex life of politicians its No. 1 priority, so that other reporters can be left alone to do real journalism. Oh, wait, there already is such a publication! It's called the National Enquirer. They spend thousands on their tawdry probes, and when they're done, the traditional media can judge whether the findings are actually newsworthy (as they were with Edwards) or not. In other words, for better or worse, that is exactly the system we have in place now.
In a bizarre and often uncomfortable way, that system seems to actually work.