The right lessons from the John Edwards affair

August 18, 2008

From all the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, you’d think the story the news media missed was one of huge consequence, like going to war on fabricated grounds. Instead, it was an affair involving a once-viable presidential candidate, ex-U.S. Sen. John Edwards, and a videographer who worked for his campaign.

Actually, the story was reported, but by the National Enquirer, the ailing checkout counter tabloid. It reported last October that Edwards had a mistress, and in December that she claimed the baby she was pregnant with was his. The Enquirer kept splashing away at the story, which became a topic of Internet speculation and which both Edwards and the woman denied.

Finally in July the tabloid ran a sensational account of reporters cornering Edwards in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom in the wee hours after he visited the woman and her child in their room.

Only after mainstream media suggested that ducking the allegations might cost Edwards a speaking role at the Democratic convention did he admit to the affair – not to fathering the child – in an ABC Nightline interview.

And now the news media are indulging in one of their periodic bouts of recrimination and self-loathing for not chasing the story sooner.

“Old media dethroned,” one headline laments. Still others: “Did the MSM [mainstream media] drop the ball on John Edwards?” “Media’s self censorship is a bigger scandal than Edwards.” “Reticence of mainstream media becomes a story itself.”

Self-criticism is healthy enough, but this particular spasm is disturbing. Sure, media whose authority is based on being on top of important stories are embarrassed: The career of a major politician is facedown in a ditch, and these supposedly authoritative outfits learned about it somewhere else. Ouch.

But I worry about a lack of clarity as to precisely why it’s right to consider their handling of the story a failure. And without exploring that question, the potential is huge that the people who shape future coverage will learn the wrong lessons from the affair.

The most troubling potential consequence would be for journalists to decide, henceforth, that private infidelity among political figures is necessarily newsworthy. True, many people believe it is, not just because cheating on a spouse is despicable in itself, but because it’s emblematic of deeper character flaws, of dishonesty and disloyalty, that can’t help but color public performance.

Maybe. But history is full of courageous leaders who in their private lives were terrible and abusive spouses and parents — depressives, drunks, bullies. Individuals have a way of partitioning their lives, handling one set of duties commendably and another abysmally.

Others argue the hypocrisy angle: Once a political figure pronounces in favor of wholesome values, evidence of private transgressions is fair game. But isn’t the issue that matters whether their public actions are consistent with those pronouncements? And if they are, does evidence of private misbehavior really matter?

I confess to a strong bias in favor of privacy, and I don’t believe anybody relinquishes the right to a private sphere by entering public service. That’s why I would argue that intrusive reporting on private activities – even those, like adultery, that most of us consider immoral — is permissible only to the degree that a clear nexus exists with public duty.

Hence, John Edwards’ purported behavior was genuinely newsworthy, in my view, but not because he had sex with a campaign worker. It’s because of indications that her qualifications for the nicely-paid film-making gig were thin, and that a whole enabling structure of friends and loyalists emerged to pay her, to sustain the dalliance, to dissemble and, perhaps, to pay her off.

The issue isn’t private infidelity, it’s public corruption — misusing the entity created, with campaign contributions, to promote Edwards’ presidential run. Just how far this rot spread within the organization is a legitimate and vital area of journalistic inquiry. (This dimension began drawing the attention it deserves late last week.)

So before crestfallen news organizations decide they need to create a domestic bliss beat, to assign investigative talent to skulk around lobbies and pose as chambermaids – or set up stings for lonely politicos with a wandering eye – they’d do well to rededicate themselves to exposing the vast areas of public misconduct and betrayal that, day in and day out, go wholly unreported.

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