Archive for January, 2010

Last words on Edwards

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Three thoughts on the latest, and hopefully last, outbreak of news about John Edwards:

(1) The News & Observer, in its coverage of Edwards’ belated acknowledgment that he’s the father of Rielle Hunter’s child, today published a short excerpt from the book “Game Change.” The excerpt described the first meeting between the two, at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan in 2006, with campaign aide Josh Brumberger also present.

“From the get-go, Brumberger thought that [Hunter] was trouble. Everything about her screamed groupie. She looked like a hybrid of Stevie Nicks and Lucinda Williams, in an outfit more suitable for a Grateful Dead concert than an evening at the Regency. A few minutes later, after Edwards departed for dinner around the corner, Hunter came back over to Brumberger and started quizzing him on his job. ‘I think I can help you guys,’ she said, and handed him her business card. The inscription read, ‘Being Is Free: Rielle Hunter - Truth Seeker.’”

Let me get this straight: John Edwards, who just two years before was almost elected vice president, threw away his political career over a ditzy babe who calls herself a “truth seeker” — and Sarah Palin is the gold standard of idiotic vice-presidential candidates?

(2) I got a moment of sour amusement when I came across this passage in a story by N&O political writer Rob Christensen about Edwards’ confession:

Many thought the son of a Moore County textile family had got above his raisin’ - that the cheering crowds, the Secret Service protection, the fawning campaign staff had gone to his head. The famous YouTube video of Edwards spending so much time combing his hair before preparing for a television interview told you something about who Edwards had become. I’m pretty sure Edwards didn’t get $400 haircuts when he was a Raleigh lawyer.

Why was this sourly amusing? Because in 2004 I wrote a column for the N&O about the video of Edwards’ on-camera primping. But you never saw that column, because it was spiked on orders from the top. (It was neither the first nor last time N&O editors killed something I’d written. I seemed to annoy them a lot.)

(3) Finally, I’ll share something I wrote for Business North Carolina magazine in October 2008, in which I said newspapers, and particularly the N&O, were making a mistake in letting the National Enquirer do the heavy lifting on the Edwards story. (You can see the whole column, which was a follow-up to a previous piece, here.)

What you witnessed as the Edwards saga unfolded was the unprecedented sight of a monopoly business stepping meekly aside in the face of unorganized, leaderless competition. The newspaper industry took the opportunity of Edwards’ philandering to tacitly demonstrate, once and for all, that it understands its new role in the digital age — that of a boutique information source, just one among many.

My August column made the case that technology’s greatest blow to the newspaper industry was that it revealed journalism as something any reasonably intelligent amateur could master. The resulting explosion of independent news sources vaporized billions of dollars of newspaper companies’ market value. The industry’s reaction to that paradigm shift has been puzzling. Its strategy has been to (1) try to convince the public that newspapers are the only truly reliable and comprehensive source of news and (2) give readers a daily report that often is neither reliable nor comprehensive. The Edwards saga put those conflicting instincts on full display, with editors letting a significant story be brought to the public by the very channels they have encouraged us to ignore and, afterward, wringing their hands and bleating endlessly about why they hadn’t reported it themselves. (That the leader of the journalism pack was the National Enquirer was an irony too farcical for even a sitcom writer to dream up.) …

Ignoring the story not only gave a major boost to digital-age competitors, it was a stupid business move. On a day in mid-August when the news about Edwards was peaking, the Raleigh News & Observer published its weekly list of the five most-read stories on its Web site. Four were about Edwards, the longtime Raleigh resident who had become a national political figure.

That was also the point at which the story evolved from a relatively routine tale of infidelity into one that carried evidence of lies, a mammoth coverup and payoffs — possibly involving campaign funds — to Edwards’ mistress and the man who claimed to be the father of her child. Considering that readers were clearly interested and that by even the strictest definition the Edwards saga was news, you would think the N&O and its sister paper, The Charlotte Observer, would have pursued it with vigor. After all, it was a golden moment when good journalism and good business were the same thing. They didn’t. But the alternative news outlets did.

Oh, well. By now, it’s just ink over the dam.