Topic: Media

The John Edwards Sex Scandal and Media Bias

Even those who still deny the mainstream media’s blatant liberal bias (The Washington Post editors recently pronounced themselves “surprised” at the huge discrepancy between the number of photos the paper prints of Democratic candidate Barack Obama compared to the relatively meager number of photos run of John McCain. Now how did that happen?) have to concede that the failure to cover the increasingly interesting story of John Edwards’ alleged mistress and love-child is odd.

The National Enquirer published a story last October asserting that former senator Edwards, John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, was having a secret affair with a woman who was pregnant with his child. Last month, the much-reviled tabloid (which actually has a pretty good record of being accurate when it comes to celebrity affairs and illnesses) posted a story online chronicling how Edwards had visited the woman, Rielle Hunter, and their child in the early hours of July 21 at a Beverly Hills hotel. The Enquirer reporters confronted Edwards after a 2 AM chase, and Edwards muttered non-answers to their inquiries. Though the story is a live topic on blogs and the other tabloids, no news outlet has touched it yet. Why? The same cable news stations and newspapers will report the affairs and indiscretions of the most minor show-business celebrities on the thinnest of provocation, despite the fact that such stories have no larger significance whatsoever, and the fact that their objects did not just run for president and do not have a wife with terminal cancer. Edwards is, at least nominally, a vice-presidential possibility for 2008.

This story isn’t news, or worth investigating? Speculation about the protective shield around Edwards has been aired in such publications as Slate, whose Jon Fine ventured five reasons why the story hasn’t made it past the supermarket check-out counter:

1. Edwards never broke the Presidential plausibility threshold. He never looked like he might be nominated, especially once he lost the Iowa primary.

[Scoreboard comment: So what? Senator Larry Craig’s humiliation in an airport men’s room was treated as a major news story, and he is a far more obscure political figure than Edwards. The hypocrisy factor? Anyone who buys that answer is too biased to notice the media’s slant. Craig’s hypocrisy was that he had been aggressively  against gay marriage and yet appeared to solicit sex in a men’s room. This is a greater breach of integrity than parading one’s loving union with an ailing wife as a campaign asset while carrying on an illicit affair? Ah, but Larry Craig is a Republican…]

2. Edwards exited the race. Just before Gary Hart pulled out off the ’88 race based in part on, er, a story and photos that ran in the National Enquirer, the Washington Post was readying another story about Hart’s complicated love life. When he stopped his campaign, that story did not get published. As then-Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said in Richard Ben Cramer's majestic, barbell-like account of the 1988 campaign What it Takes: "I don't see any reason why we should [publish] . . . "The chase is over."

[Scoreboard comment: I think most would agree that the standards have changed a great deal in the post-Monica media world. 1988 is ancient history. The better question is, would the press be as reluctant to follow a similar story if it involved one of the GOP also-rans, like Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney? Isn’t the answer obvious?]

3. Edwards isn’t considered a likely vice-presidential candidate by the press, despite appearing on some lists of potential candidates. He's not in any elected position, nor is he running for one.

[Scoreboard comment: Who invented the “The personal scandals of a famous politician and national figure who was on a national ticket in the last presidential election isn’t newsworthy unless he’s a leading vice-presidential candidate even though he has been prominently mentioned as a possible choice for a Democratic cabinet position” standard? Whoever it was, he or she was trying awfully hard to let someone off the hook.]

4. Edwards has a sick wife, who many seem to instinctively like. (And much more than her husband, in fact.)

[Scoreboard comment: Huh? Has everyone forgotten the press national flogging the story about how Newt Gingrich, before anyone had heard of him, dumped his first wife while she was seriously ill? Cheating on your terminally sick wife is, by acclamation, about as low as one can go. It makes Edwards’ conduct more newsworthy, not less. And needless to say, the professional press is not supposed to weigh stories according to who the reporters and editors “like.” But of course, it does.]

5. Most importantly, there was nothing resembling the smoking gun that's emerged in other scandals. With Hart, there were pictures and a stakeout of where he met with Donna Rice. While arguably neither was enough to draw specific conclusions, both were enough to raise eyebrows. Bill Clinton got exposed (repeatedly) as front-runner and President, but in all of the instances that got covered in the mainstream press—Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and Gennifer Flowers—there was some kind of, ah, evidence, or tapes, or an involved party going on the record.

[Scoreboard comment: Well, now there has been a stake-out, and there appear to be pictures. And that baby sure is a likely “smoking gun.” Many bloggers have wondered why Edwards, the wily lawyer, hasn’t insisted on a paternity test to clear his name and also set up the Enquirer for a whopping lawsuit. When the story first broke in October, one of his loyal—and married—campaign workers stepped forward and said the baby was his. Oddly, he has not been seen visiting the mother.]

Fine, who deserves credit for raising and discussing the issue, doesn’t mention as one of his prime reasons one other factor that certainly has played a part in allowing the “serious” news media to rationalize its contrived ignorance of the Edwards affair: the distain in which the National Enquirer is held by most journalists. But the chasm between the ethical standards of traditional journalism and the dubious ethical standards of the tabloids has shrunk to the size of a mere fissure. The Edwards story is already more substantial and has more tangible evidence than the infamous “some aides reportedly say John McCain spends too much time flirting with a pretty lobbyist” non-story that the New York Time felt was worthy of its front page. Some commentators have suggested that the Enquirer’s sources may be more reliable than those seeding stories for the respectable news media, because they are sometimes paid, in open violation of journalism school ethics. But a paid source only collects if the information is true.

The ethical bottom-line question is this: whether or not the media is demonstrating its bias by ignoring Edwards’ love triangle when it usually shows no such restraint in sex scandals involving more rightward politicians, is this a story that, in the abstract, news media has an obligation to cover? The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes, because the answers to these questions are also yes:

Is Edwards still a significant figure on the political scene?


Has he previously demonstrated questionable integrity?

Yes. This was a presidential candidate, remember, who claimed that he took a princely fee in the service of a hedge fund in order to “learn about poverty.”

Does he still have a following in the Democratic Party?


Might he be an influential force in the future?


Would the public, or a significant portion of it, think less of Edwards if the scandals was confirmed and reported?


Should it?

Yes. It would eliminate whatever reasonable doubt still surviving that Edwards is a posturing phony who cannot be believed or trusted.

Would that portion of the public want to know, in that case?

Of course.

Then, to use the hoariest and most over-used of media justifications in the context it was originally intended to be used, does the public have a right to know?


Comment on this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy