Byron York: When the media ignored a scandal
Two weeks before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the National Enquirer published a detailed story reporting that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had had an affair, and that the woman involved – campaign videographer Rielle Hunter – was pregnant, and that Edwards had arranged for an aide to falsely claim to be the father, and that Hunter and the aide and the aide’s family were being taken care of financially by a wealthy Edwards supporter.
It was, to say the least, explosive.
At the time, Edwards was a serious contender in the Democratic presidential race, so when the story was published, his aides prepared for what some believed would be an onslaught of media scrutiny.
But it didn’t happen. Although Edwards could not have known it at the time, it turned out that many journalists just didn’t want to report the news and didn’t try very hard to uncover the facts.
The tale is told in the new book “The Politician” by former Edwards aide and confidant Andrew Young, the man who, at Edwards’ insistence, claimed that he, and not the candidate, was the father of Hunter’s child.
By mid-December 2007, Edwards knew the Enquirer story was coming. With Iowa fast approaching, he came up with an I’m-not-the-father cover-up scheme, believing that having Young claim paternity would deflect blame away from the candidate himself. “It’s going to be a one-day story, Andrew,” Edwards told Young, according to Young’s account. “No offense, but the press doesn’t give a s-t about you.”
So the statement was drafted. In addition to claiming paternity, Young wrote that Edwards “knew nothing” about the relationship.
It was a preposterous lie, but Edwards went ahead, offering the one-paragraph explanation to any reporters who asked. The candidate and his top advisers, Young wrote, “expected the (media) onslaught” to begin as soon as the Enquirer posted its story online. Young sent his family out of town to spare them the firestorm.
But then … nothing. “To our relief, no serious newspaper or TV network picked up the story because they couldn’t find a source to confirm it,” Young wrote. The damage was confined to a few Web sites. “We began to think that perhaps our strategy had worked,” Young said.
What followed was a bizarre series of events in which Fred Baron, the wealthy Edwards supporter, paid enormous sums of money to fly Hunter and the Youngs around the country to keep them out of sight until after the Iowa caucuses, and then the New Hampshire primary, and then, when the campaign fizzled but Edwards still had hopes of making it onto the Democratic presidential ticket, until after Hunter had the baby.
Still no word of it in the press. But the Enquirer was not finished. In July 2008, the tabloid published a detailed account of Edwards’ visit with Hunter and the baby at a Los Angeles hotel.
“Andrew, they caught me,” a tearful Edwards is quoted as telling Young in a phone conversation. “It’s all over.”
Surely now, Young thought, the media would jump on the story. But it didn’t happen. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the broadcast networks and the cable-news outlets – none reported the story. This time, though, it finally bubbled up, from the blogs to talk radio to late-night television. By the second week of August, Edwards appeared on ABC News to semi-confess.
An explosive scandal had been kept out of the press for months at a time when the man at the center was an important player in national politics. Why?
Young thought it was because the Edwards camp so tightly controlled information that journalists weren’t able to find sources to corroborate the Enquirer’s reporting. While that may have been part of it, the fact was, many editors and reporters just didn’t want to tell the story.
Maybe they admired Edwards’ cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth. Maybe they saw no good in exposing Edwards’ sordid acts. Maybe they looked down on the National Enquirer. Or maybe they were just biased. “In the case of John Edwards,” said Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, “even though it was clearly out there – everybody in America knew about this well before CNN and the New York Times and the Washington Post got into this game – there was still a great reluctance.”
Of course, in the end the story came out anyway – but only after the sheer weight of Edwards’ corruption made the facts impossible to ignore, even for sympathetic journalists.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.
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