STEVE BOUSER: Shoptalk: Up and Down on Edwards Beat
What a difference a scandal makes.
Until a couple of weeks ago, The Pilot heard endless complaints from conservative readers about too much front-page coverage of John Edwards.
"It seems that every time I receive The Pilot, there is a story about the campaign exploits of former Sen. John Edwards," read a typical letter published last January. " Let's have a little fairness and give your readers information on some of the other candidates such as McCain, Obama, Clinton, Giuliani, Huckabee, Richardson or Romney."
(Never mind that none of them happened to grow up in Moore County.)
But now that Edwards' political career has gone down in flames after his admission of an affair with a campaign videographer whose baby is widely suspected of being his, the tone of the letters has changed.
"Color me disappointed," one reader wrote last Friday. "Here's the official poster child of The Pilot caught flagrante delicto (after many denials) and possibly producing another little liberal Democrat, and all he gets is a little Aug. 10 front-page story, continued inside. Poor Joe Boylan (Republican) gets a DUI and is featured in news and all over the editorial page."
Actually, we had printed three front-page stories about the Edwards affair at the time I received that e-mail. And there was a highly critical editorial in the works, which appeared a week ago under the headline, "John Edwards Let Lots of Folks Down."
If I'm sounding defensive here, it's because of the frustrations we at The Pilot have encountered over the months and years in trying to cover the home-county boy who soared to such giddy political heights and has now come tumbling down. We've never relished it. As a thrice-weekly community paper with limited staff, we have often felt over our collective head in trying to run with the big dogs in keeping up with such a big, far-flung story.
"Hoo, boy. Here we go again," I wrote in early 2007, after Edwards had launched his second run for the presidency -- this time choosing New Orleans for the announcement instead of standing in front of the Robbins mill in which he worked as a youth (the one that burned over the weekend). In that column, I quoted Publisher David Woronoff as complaining that the unwelcome task of having to cover another Edwards campaign felt like "putting on a wet bathing suit."
But soggy or not, a local man making it big on the national scene is local news. I feel certain that the local paper in Casper, Wyo., regardless of whatever political views it might express on its editorial pages, rushes to give special news-page attention to any significant story involving Vice President Dick Cheney, who grew up there. John Edwards, who ran against him in 2004? Not so much. Here in Moore County, the shoe is on the other foot. In both cases, it's a matter of news value, not special favor.
For months, I was vaguely aware that stories about Edwards and his supposed love child were making the rounds of sleazy blogs and supermarket tabloids. But they never rose to the level of potential news until late July, when The National Enquirer went public with a claim that its reporters had confronted Edwards during a late-night visit to his alleged paramour in a California hotel.
For a long time, maybe too long, the so-called "mainstream media" -- and we -- hesitated to legitimize the story by repeating it. Politics aside, there were simple fairness issues involved, along with concern for the family and maybe even fear of libel suits. We didn't have the resources to confirm the claims independently. Besides, when I thought National Enquirer, I thought two-headed Martian babies.
It is interesting to note that not even The Enquirer printed the story at first, instead restricting it to its Web site. Late in the game, Online Editor Hunter Chase and I discussed taking a somewhat similar course: He or I would discuss the story in a blog, making it clear that we knew about it and explaining why we weren't ready to go into print with it. But that seemed like a back-door approach.
Only after the two biggest papers in the state, The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh, published articles did I feel comfortable doing so. (Those dailies, both owned by McClatchy newspapers, had had two or three reporters working full-time on the story for days.) Our first story, by Matt Moriarty, appeared Aug. 1. And between us and everybody else, it's been pretty much "all Edwards, all the time" ever since.
Good news or bad, I'll be happy when it ends. If it ever does.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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