Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, the outlet most deserving of the prestigious journalism award was glaringly absent from the list: The National Enquirer.

The New York Times and The Washington Post took half of the prizes, which is not surprising, considering that much of the Pulitzer jury came from these publications. Their annual prize has become more of a self-indulgent round robin than a reward to the most deserving journalist.

The Enquirer’s investigation of former Sen. John Edwards single-handedly ended his run for the White House and led to a federal grand jury probe. If the Times or the Post had broken the same stories about Mr. Edwards, the Pulitzer would have been a slam dunk. A handful of strong voices in these same outlets even admitted that they failed the public by not following up on the Edwards story. Still, in the end, the media elite circled the wagons to exclude the scrappy, self-proclaimed supermarket tabloid.

In early January, I pointed out that the Enquirer deserved the honor purely on the merits of its reporting and the ensuing criminal investigation. Consider the paper’s 2009 scoops: that a grand jury was investigating Mr. Edwards’ misuse of campaign funds; the DNA test proving paternity of his mistress Rielle Hunter’s child; wife Elizabeth Edwards filing for legal separation; and Miss Hunter’s legal documents preparing to sue Mr. Edwards for child support.

When I contacted the Enquirer’s Executive Editor Barry Levine about my column, he thought submitting the application for a Pulitzer was too much of a long shot. But weeks later, Mr. Edwards’ longtime aide Andrew Young’s book came out, which validated the organization’s reporting. Then John Edwards admitted publicly that was the father of Miss Hunter’s two-year old daughter Frances Quinn. Vindicated, Mr. Levine decided to submit the Pulitzer application.

In an attempted pre-emptive strike, Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler told a reporter that the tabloid was not eligible because it was a magazine (only newspapers are eligible) and the reporting was done in 2007 and 2008, outside the calendar year deadline. Undeterred, Mr. Levine completed the application materials and submitted for consideration in two categories.

Mr. Gissler, to his credit, gave Mr. Levine the opportunity to prove that the Enquirer is a newspaper and not a magazine (which begs the question how “The New York Times Magazine” won an award this year). After negotiations, the Pulitzer committee granted eligibility to the National Enquirer.

Over the past couple months, while the Pulitzer jury met in secret, media coverage shed doubt on the possibility of the National Enquirer winning by focusing on the Enquirer’s so-called “checkbook journalism.” For the record, the paper did not pay any sources for information related to reporting on Mr. Edwards in 2009. So, hopefully the Pulitzer jury did not use that excuse to dismiss the Enquirer out of hand.

Mr. Levine openly admits to paying sources, but only for information that is proven to be truthful and verifiable. His sources are often subjected to lie detector tests and asked to sign legal affidavits that they are giving truthful accounts. Then, the Enquirer’s own reporters track down the leads and verify the account before publishing.

But consider the conduct of the mainstream press. The Enquirer reported in December 2007 that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was having an affair and that his mistress was pregnant. Reporters covering the Edwards campaign refused to pick up on the story. Despite photographic evidence of a pregnant Rielle Hunter, journalists “on the bus” refused to ask Mr. Edwards whether the charge was true or not. Partly I blame the reporters’ reticence on their adoration of cancer-stricken Elizabeth Edwards. Mostly, though, the reason the mainstream media did not follow up on the Edwards’ affair is because the source of the stories was a supermarket tabloid.

That “tabloid” has continued the expense of running a top-notch investigative team whose dogged pursuit of the Edwards scandal closely scrutinized the conduct of a man who could easily have become president, vice president or attorney general.

It is a sign of the times that political investigations have moved away from the traditional media outlets to those willing to spend the time, manpower and shoe leather to uncover political wrongdoing.

Although the announcement that the National Enquirer did not win a Pulitzer was disappointing, the public outpouring of support for the underdog has not been in vain. The National Enquirer has earned a great deal of new respect for its investigative reporting by the mainstream media admission that they let down the public in the case of John Edwards. So, the next time the Enquirer uncovers a political scandal, the mainstream media will have no choice to pay attention - and follow up.

Most importantly, “nontraditional media outlets” such as bloggers, local newspapers and yes, tabloids have proven to be as important to our public discourse as the mainstream media. The power is being returned to the American people in the form of a favorite pastime: standing in supermarket lines reading The National Enquirer.

Emily Miller blogs about insider politics for The Washington Times.

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