Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Edwards Story Lesson: Use the Elephant

Bob Wilson is a retired North Carolina journalist. His column follows:

"I do not view The National Enquirer as a credible source of news."
John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer

“The truth of the matter is journalists take tips from all sorts of sources, and some of them are unsavory. That's not so important as what you do with the tip." Rick Thames, executive editor of The Charlotte Observer

The N&O should have owned the John Edwards story.

Raleigh was Edwards' political launch pad in 1998 when he first ran for the Senate. He lives three miles west of the N&O's Chapel Hill office. His presidential campaign headquarters was about the same distance away in Southern Village. And the N&O, for more than a century the guidon of the North Carolina Democratic Party, was widely regarded as one of Edwards' most loyal acolytes.

Yet it was The Charlotte Observer, once the N&O's arch rival and now an uneasy partner in a shotgun marriage imposed by their owner, McClatchy Newspapers, which did what the N&O would not: Anoint the Edwards story with mainstream respectability and get it on the front pages of America’s newspapers.

The contrast between how the two papers approached the story speaks volumes about their newsroom philosophies.

In a rare weekday column Drescher yesterday attempted to excuse his paper's anemic reports on the emerging scandal (the N&O first mentioned it July 31 in a brief “B” section item based on Observer reporting. But the hard truth is the N&O was a nonstarter on one of the biggest political stories in recent memory.

And it was right there in the N&O's front yard. (Full disclosure: Drescher insists the N&O’s coverage was “aggressive but fair.” His column’s here.)

Drescher’s “aggressive but fair” assertion will puzzle N&O readers who recall its public editor Ted Vaden’s Aug. 3 column closer:

I worry about where the coverage goes from here. In chasing information like birth certificate listings, it becomes easy to get caught up in the salacious details and drop the restraint that has marked The N&O's responsible approach to the story.

Yes, Edwards has been mentioned as a vice presidential candidate, although this controversy makes that less likely. But he is now, after all, a private figure, and there's a point where examining his sex life doesn't serve a public interest and risks turning a respectable newspaper into "The News and Enquirer."
Not until Edwards' Aug. 8 mea culpa on ABC's Nightline did the N&O appear to wake up to the importance of what people with an Internet connections had been reading about for weeks.

Rick Thames, realizing as Drescher didn't that facts exist independently of their sources, didn’t dismiss the Enquirer’s July 22 story reporting the Edwards-Hunter tryst. He had the Observer check it out.

By July 24 political reporter Jim Morrill posted on an Observer blog a summary of the Enquirer story and his interview with its editor David Perel.

Morrill also reported contacting the Beverly Hilton which gave him a “non-disclosure policy” response but no denial of the events, including lobby, stairways and Men’s room commotions the Enquirer reported.

Most important of all as events turned out, Morrill got former DNC chair Dan Fowler on the record explaining why the Enquirer's allegations, if not put to rest by Edwards, would wreck his political future.

In the days that followed the Observer broke story after story. On July 30 when a Washington-based Observer reporter staked Edwards out and confronted him with specific questions based on the Enquirer’s story, he literally ran away.

By the next day the Observer had located Hunter’s baby’s birth certificate and published Lisa Zagaroli's story reporting it listed no father and providing Observer readers with an excellent summary of the story starting with the Enquirer disclosures.

The Observer's breakthrough story appeared Aug. 7. Reporter Mark Johnson quoted three top Democratic operatives saying Edwards had better explain the Enquirer's allegations or forget speaking at the Democratic Convention. Tellingly, one of the operatives was Gary Pearce, a former N&O political reporter turned Democratic strategist. Pearce masterminded Edwards' 1998 election to the U.S. Senate.

A day later, Edwards was on Nightline.

When Edwards flew too close to the sun, as such self-absorbed, ambitious types always do, the wax melted. Edwards dropped like McClatchy stock, searing both his Mr. Clean image and a newspaper that seemed as oblivious to reality as its favorite son.

The old “gatekeeper” news paradigm crashed with Edwards. In 2008, a parallel pipeline of news and opinion –Internet, talk radio and cable TV -- disgorges enormous amounts of information and misinformation round-the-clock. On the Edwards story, the N&O haughtily ignored it all; the Observer looked for what it could use.

White gloves still have their place in today's news environment, but watch out for the new elephant in town. He can break your china and hurt your credibility. But treat him right and he can help you get the story.

Rick Thames will tell you that.


Anonymous said...

Great column.

lutonmoore said...

Yeah that was good. I thought that the N&O and the Observer were peas in a pod. Thanks for enlightening me.

Anonymous said...

The Observer led the way on this story.

But at the N&O, they're taking the credit.

"aggressive but fair"

And telling readers they did things the Observer did.

Anonymous said...

The N&O political team and the Charlotte Observer's political team sit in the exact same room. You're drawing distinctions between the two newspapers that simply no longer exist. John, I thought you made a commitment to fact check items posted on your blog.

Anonymous said...

"I was taught when I was a young reporter that it's news when we say it is. I think that's still true -- it's news when 'we' say it is. It's just who 'we' is has changed"
David Carr, 1956 - ,CNN Reliable Sources, Sunday, August 10, 2008.

Walter Abbott

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 6:31,

Iran and the U.S. sit in the exact same room at the U.N.

Did you ever hear of sharing an office.

The Observer reporters did what they did; the N&O reporters didn't do much.

Drescher says he sent a reporter to Santa Barbara, but the reporter got chased off by deputies as he approached one of the houses Edwards' "party members" were staying in.

NC to Cal is a long way to go to ring a bell.

The N&O just got beat as Bob says on a story they should have owned.

Journalists know that.

JWM said...

To cks,

Thank you for your nice words and thank you for your thoughtful, fact-filled comments.

To lutonmoore,

Thank you.

Your "peas in a pod" comment prompts me to plan a post on what differences I've seen between the two papers.

If I don't have it up in a week, please remind me on a then current comment thread.

To Anon@ 6:31,

I see it the same way.

To second Anon@ 6:31,

The Anon @ 6:53 responding to your comment makes some excellent points.

I plan to build a main page post tomorrow around your comment.

It presents some wonderful opportunities to compare the N&O and Observer coverage of Edwards' affair and lies.

To Walter Abbott,

I'll just underline your comment and thank you for all you've done that the N&O, H-S and others should have done.

You're making a difference.

To Anon @ 6:53,


And see my response to the second Anon @ 6:31.

Thank you all.