Sunday, August 17, 2008


Among former Sen. John Edwards‘ other sins against humanity, add this one. He helped the National Enquirer to gain more credibility than any supermarket tabloid deserves.

The blogosphere is abuzz with critics of the “MSM” - the mainstream media - for allegedly failing to pursue the story of the former senator’s “love child” when the National Enquirer first reported it last year. In fact, major media did try to confirm it, rather than go to press by using the Enquirer as a source. Call us old-fashioned, but most of us in the MSM tend to be hung up on some stodgy, old-fashioned virtues like facts.

Unlike the Enquirer’s last big baby gotcha - its revelation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s out-of-wedlock child in 2000 - none of the principal parties in the Edwards story would confirm it on the record. That’s a problem. If you’re going to use unnamed sources, which is questionable enough as a practice, at least make them your own sources, not those of a supermarket tabloid.

At first Mr. Edwards flatly denied the story. This year, after the Enquirer published a story and a grainy photo allegedly of Mr. Edwards visiting the baby and its mother, filmmaker Rielle Hunter, in a Los Angeles hotel, the Edwards campaign went mum, refusing to confirm or deny anything.

After ABC’s Brian Ross and other reporters turned up the heat in recent days, Mr. Edwards finally confessed. With that, he exposed his own narcissistic betrayal of the trust invested in him not only by his wife and family but also by supporters of his now-abandoned presidential campaign. His political future is toast.

So the Enquirer got one. Give them that. As the old saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The Edwards story was the tabloid’s biggest “gotcha” since it uncovered Rev. Jackson’s babygate. But two big scoops in eight years hardly amounts to a call for us in the more conventional family-oriented newspapers to change our standards to those of the Enquirer.

This is a paper, after all, that ran the Page One “John Edwards with love child” headline with smaller type than its main headline of the week, celebrity “Plastic surgery shockers!”

Nevertheless, now that the Enquirer has bagged Mr. Edwards before anyone else did, probably because of an insider’s tip, bloggers from the right-wing loonosphere already are using the Edwards scoop to grant unearned credibility to other tabloid stories. These include loads of claptrap about Sen. Barack Obama, among other political newsmakers.

Back in March, for example, the Enquirer headlined “Obama’s secrets,” which turned out to be what most tabloid stories are: all headline and no news.

The subheads blared: “His close friendship with terrorist,” “Big money deal with accused felon,” and “Screaming matches with wife - over other women.” The actual article consisted of facts rehashed from the Chicago Tribune and other publications, mashed together by Enquirer’s rewriting and spiced up with unconfirmed “rumors” and “Internet posts” into steaming innuendo that signified nothing.

The “other women,” for example, turn out to be the crowds of women who, along with a lot of men, show adoration for Mr. Obama on the campaign trail. Slog through the muck almost to the end of the article and you find an unnamed “source” who claims “sharing him” with fans is a “bone of contention” that has led to “screaming matches” with his wife. No further details. But, if you’ve read that far, the Enquirer doesn’t care. They’ve probably already got your money.

I’m not opposed to tabloids. I’ve always felt that people who don’t like real news need newspapers, too. For pure, unadulterated entertainment value, I miss the Weekly World News, a sister publication that the Enquirer’s publishers discontinued last year, perhaps because the field of fake news was becoming too overcrowded by bloggers.

Often billing itself as “The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper,” the Weekly World News would break such exclusives as “UFOs attack Texas air show,” “Garden of Eden found” and “Hillary Clinton adopts alien baby.” How we in the MSM missed that alien baby story, I’ll never know.

But neither the Obama nor the John McCain campaign can afford to dismiss the tabloid’s reportage too casually. Today’s tabloid drivel could be tomorrow’s attack ads - and quite possibly will be.

But, remember: Just because you read it on the tabloid racks near the supermarket checkout counter doesn’t mean it’s true.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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