Inside an office on Columbia University’s campus, the Pulitzer Prize staff is sorting through the stacks of submissions postmarked by Monday. One of the packages is a FedEx box containing a black three-ring notebook. The screams heard from inside the ivy-walled, ivory-towered building will let us know that the panel members have read the binder’s title page: “Newspaper, the National Enquirer: Submission for 2009 Pulitzer Prize.”
The media establishment, which controls the eligibility and awardees for the Pulitzer Prize, is being forced to admit that the National Enquirer’s excellent investigative reporting team exposed the biggest political scandal of 2009, the John Edwards affair. The self-proclaimed “supermarket tabloid” single-handedly uncovered that the Democratic presidential candidate was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth Edwards; fathered a child with campaign staffer Rielle Hunter; covered up the affair by having an aide claim paternity; and possibly misappropriated campaign funds to pay Miss Hunter to go into hiding with the child.
As a result of the Enquirer’s stories, Mr. Edwards admitted that while campaigning for president, he committed adultery and fathered a child out of wedlock. He dropped out of his second bid for the presidency, gave up hopes of joining the Hillary Clinton ticket and even failed in his last ditch effort to be President Obama’s attorney general. Most significantly, the paper’s reporting led to a federal grand jury investigation of whether Mr. Edwards misappropriated campaign funds. The grand jury’s decision on whether or not to indict him is expected within the next two months.
The paper’s editor, Barry Levine, gave me the cover letter of the submission packet addressed to Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer’s administrator since 2002. Mr. Levine writes to Mr. Gissler that his team of reporters, photographers and editors “deserve the respect of your distinguished board to seriously consider the merits of our reporting.”
When I wrote a column calling for the National Enquirer to be awarded the Pulitzer for its investigation of Mr. Edwards, I knew it was a long shot. But I had been citing the paper as my sole source in stories for most of 2009 and felt strongly that the mainstream media should recognize the paper’s original reporting. After Mr. Edwards finally admitted on Jan. 20 that 2-year-old Quinn Hunter is his daughter, the support by the public and the mainstream media for the Enquirer was overwhelming. As a result, Mr. Levine took up my suggestion and nominated his team for Pulitzers in two categories, investigative and national affairs reporting.
Mr. Gissler, the one man who decides eligibility for Pulitzers, tried to stop the Enquirer from even submitting for the award. He told reporters that a submission by the Enquirer would be tossed out on various technicalities. (Mr. Gissler said the paper is a magazine, to which Mr. Levine responded in his letter by pointing out that “for decades, through the 1990s, we proudly boasted beneath our name on the cover “LARGEST CIRCULATION OF ANY PAPER IN AMERICA.” Mr. Gissler also claimed that the majority of the Edwards investigation stories were published in previous years, which Mr. Levine contradicts by citing ground-breaking stories published in 2009 of the grand jury being seated and DNA tests proving paternity.)
Journalism is considered the fourth estate of government - tasked with keeping politicians accountable to the public. But rapidly dwindling ad revenues and circulation for print newspapers have forced the big papers to drastically cut back on reporting. Many major papers have closed their investigative units entirely. Meanwhile, the National Enquirer continues to incur the expense of long-term investigations. The paper spent thousands of dollars and significant manpower on the three-year investigation of John Edwards and continues to pursue such shoe-leather journalism. Mr. Gissler and the rest of the old guard should embrace the political investigations being conducted by bloggers, tabloids and other independent outlets.
And, while the most common criticism of the Enquirer by more mainstream media is that the paper uses “checkbook journalism” - paying its sources for information - Mr. Levine argues that mainstream media outlets should take up the practice. Big breaks in celebrity journalism - built on that checkbook - appeal to readers more than political stories. Boosting with celebrity scoops means revenue - the currency allowing media to spend money on long-term investigations like the one that uncovered Mr. Edwards’ affair.
According to Mr. Levine, paid sources rarely lead to significant political stories but are useful in giving the paper “a direction to look.” He said no paid sources led to any bombshells in the Edwards stories. Instead, the scandal was uncovered over three years in the old-fashioned way - months-long surveillance, going door-to-door, running down leads and poring through financial documents. Also, the Enquirer does not pay sources unless leads pan out. Sources are required to undergo polygraph tests (using the same experts as the CIA and FBI) and sign contracts and affidavits. The “chain of information” is vetted before publication by a team of lawyers. “We have to work extra hard at the National Enquirer because we know that everything we put out will be taken with a grain of salt by the readers and the mainstream media,” Mr. Levine says of his rigorous sourcing standards.
The mainstream media could learn a few things from its failure in investigating a major presidential candidate. The reporters covering the Edwards campaign should have asked the staff about the allegations instead of disregarding the stories because they were published in the Enquirer. The media should recognize that the landscape has changed; news from small, less traditional outlets has credence.
If it weren’t for the Enquirer’s investigation of Mr. Edwards, would he be in the White House today? How would our nation have withstood the rattling news that the president had a mistress and an out-of-wedlock child? In the time of two wars and a major recession, could the country withstand another president being investigated by a grand jury?
We don’t know the answer to these hypothetical questions - but the Pulitzer Prize jury should consider these potential consequences to our nation if the National Enquirer had not investigated John Edwards to the end.
Emily Miller is the former press secretary to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and is a consultant in Washington.