Looking back, our coverage of John Edwards’ extramarital affair was on the mark, given what we knew and when we knew it.
In October, The National Enquirer, citing an anonymous source, said former U.S. Sen. Edwards had an affair with an unnamed former campaign worker.
Asked about the report while campaigning for president, Edwards denied the allegations.
Several blogs identified the woman as Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker who had worked for the Edwards campaign. Hunter released a statement denying an affair with Edwards.
We reported the denials in a seven-paragraph story on newsobserver.com.
We did not publish that report in the print paper. Reasonable people can disagree about whether we should have.
We report many items online that never make it into print. The report was sketchy, apparently from a single, anonymous source. It did not name the woman and was disputed by Edwards and Hunter. We decided it didn’t make the cut for the print paper.
Still, we treated the Enquirer report seriously. Working with our colleagues at The Charlotte Observer, we quickly sent a reporter to New York, where Hunter then lived, to report on the allegations. We also worked the story from here.
We learned biographical information about Hunter but were unable to interview Hunter or to confirm the affair. So we did not publish a story.
In December, The Enquirer reported that Hunter was pregnant and had moved to a gated community in Chapel Hill. It also reported that Andrew Young, an Edwards aide, and Hunter said Young was the father of her baby.
We continued reporting and learned some information about Young. But we still were unable to establish that Edwards had an affair with Hunter, and we did not publish a story.
Then, a few weeks ago, The Enquirer reported that Edwards had met with Hunter in a room at a Beverly Hills hotel and that after the meeting, Enquirer reporters had confronted him in the hotel. Curiously, The Enquirer did not publish a photo of their reporters confronting Edwards.
But there was evidence of a confrontation. We sent an N&O reporter to California to confirm the confrontation and to interview Young and Hunter, who were living separately in Santa Barbara. We were unable to confirm the confrontation or to interview Hunter or Young. At one point, our Lorenzo Perez was chased out of Young’s neighborhood by sheriff’s deputies.
We wanted to give Edwards a chance to respond to the allegations but we could not reach him.
That wasn’t unusual. We’ve had a poor relationship with Edwards and his top staffers for years.
Among other things, they were unhappy about our stories about his new house outside Chapel Hill, his expensive haircuts and his change in political philosophy from one presidential campaign to another.
Finally, The Observer’s Lisa Zagaroli cornered Edwards on July 30 after he gave a speech in Washington and tried to dodge reporters. Edwards declined comment.
That was news. We’d given Edwards a chance to set the record straight and he declined to do so. In addition, he had done all that he could to avoid reporters, exiting though a side area used by kitchen staff. Clearly, something was wrong.
Edwards dropped out of the presidential race in January.
However, he kept a high public profile, travelling the country, making speeches. If Barack Obama were elected president, Edwards was a strong candidate to play a role in an Obama administration. In my eyes, that made his personal conduct still relevant to our readers.
On Thursday, July 31, we published an item in our Under the Dome political column in the print paper about Edwards declining comment. The next day we published a short story inside the paper about how there was no father’s name on the birth certificate for Hunter’s baby.
On Thursday, Aug. 7, we published a front-page story with prominent Democrats saying Edwards needed to address the allegations if he hoped to have a role at the upcoming convention.
The following day, we ran a front-page story in which experts commented on the authenticity of an Enquirer photo that purported to show Edwards with Hunter’s baby.
Later Friday, ABC News reported that Edwards had admitted the affair in an interview.
This was a difficult story to report. Rumors often circulate about politicians having affairs. Unless you can uncover a trail, paper or electronic (as in the case of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick), an affair is difficult to prove if both sides deny it.
The Enquirer is an unusual publication. It pays for information, which gives sources an incentive to lie or exaggerate.
It has broken some big stories. But it also routinely uses anonymous sources who make sensational claims without substantiation. For example, The Enquirer reported in 2005 in “Bush’s Booze Crisis” that President Bush’s drinking problem had returned. We didn’t report those allegations because there wasn’t evidence to support them. We avoid using anonymous sources.
The Enquirer cannot be ignored. But neither can it be trusted.
We needed to verify the hotel allegations, or at least give Edwards a chance to address them, before publishing. We reported aggressively but used restraint when it came to publication.
Some readers think we did too much with this story; others think we did too little.
I think we handled it right.
Questions remain about who is the father of Hunter’s baby and whether Edwards knew about payments to Hunter and Young.
We’ll continue reporting.