Reporting on Sex Scandals: It’s a Thankless Job But Somebody’s Got to Do It

by Dagny Leonard, Editorial Intern, CQ Researcher, Jan. 22, 2010

The ink was barely dry on our latest report on “Sex Scandals” when former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina finally fessed up to what had long been suspected. On Thursday, Jan. 21, Edwards, a former contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, admitted to fathering the child of his former campaign videographer and mistress, Rielle Hunter, thus confirming claims that the National Enquirer has been making since 2007. Barry Levine, the paper’s executive editor, told Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz that he thought the Enquirer should be in the running for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the sensational story.

The supermarket tabloid is the perennial butt of journalistic jokes and not exactly your typical prize-winning publication. But the Enquirer’s coverage of the Edwards saga has proven to be accurate, and pace-setting, with the mainstream media holding their noses and following the Enquirer’s lead.

Kurtz quotes Enquirer editor Barry Levine saying of Edwards, “it’s great to see he’s taking responsibility for this child, Frances Quinn. She needs to know who her father is.” Quips Kurtz: “That's right: a supermarket tabloid editor is now lecturing a former vice-presidential nominee on matters of morality.”

Are such stories prize-winners? Certainly the persistent prying into the private life of a public figure shows tenacity, but it may not qualify as a “distinguished example” of journalism, which the Pulitzer Web site lists as a criterion for all categories of a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

The Enquirer has also been keeping busy following beleaguered Tiger Woods – who was pictured on the cover of the new CQ Researcher report on “Sex Scandals.” The Enquirer has reported he entered a sex rehabilitation clinic, with photos showing a hoodie-wearing man who could be Woods walking outside a rehabilitation center in Hattiesburg, Miss.

With sex scandals seeming to run rampant in the past few years, the coverage of the Edwards and Woods scandals once again prompt some media critics and readers to question whether the media should be covering the private lives of public figures. As the pro-con debate in the Researcher report makes clear, there is wide and continuing disagreement.

Meanwhile, the down-market Enquirer is getting its props, even from The New York Times. The Times’ Jan. 21 article about Edwards’ admission is accompanied by a National Enquirer photo of him and his former mistress. The Times notes that Edwards “initially denied the veracity of a series of articles in the National Enquirer, calling them “tabloid trash.”

Both the Times and The Washington Post had teasers about the Edwards story on the front pages of their Jan. 22 issues, while other major papers such as the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune made no front page mention.

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Sex Scandals" [subscription required] or purchase the CQ Researcher PDF.