The National Enquirer Broke the Most Important Story of the 2008 Campaign

In this space I have criticized other journalistic outlets, specifically for failing to adequately revere Sarah Palin’s literary output and Christmas. This is not going to be one of those times. Right now, I am going to lavish praise upon The National Enquirer. Despite Jerry Seinfeld’s claim that “people who read tabloids deserve to be lied to,” *The National Enquirer *is an extremely potent investigative journalism outlet. This publication has a spotty history, per wikipedia: “It was founded by anti-Semite William Griffin in 1926 and became a voice for isolationism and fascist propaganda in the 1930s and 1940s.” And also, there’s that deal where Generoso Pope bought it (allegedly) with mob money.

Nevertheless, The National Enquirer discovered that Rev. Jesse Jackson had an illegitimate child, that Rush Limbaugh had a painkiller addiction, and most recently that Tiger Woods was having an affair or two.

But the Enquirer’s greatest contribution to journalism has been their reporting that John Edwards had an affair with staffer Rielle Hunter (the basis for Alison Poole, a character in a number of novels including American Psycho), and that he had fathered a child with her.

Edwards came out and denied, denied, denied the affair. Months later, Edwards did confess, partially. He said he had indeed conducted an affair with Hunter, but had not fathered the child. At the time, Kaus wondered why certain questions were not being asked. Today we got a conclusive anser. He is the father, and the National Enquirerwants a Pulitzer. You may laugh, many do, and there’s almost no chance they win. Not only because of the lack of respect for National Enquirer, or because most of their reporting was done in 2007 and 2008, but because the National Enquirer openly engages in the most unprofessional of journalistic tactic: paying their sources.

In each of the cases above (Jackson, Limbaugh, and Woods), paid sources were integral to the Enquirer’s reporting. Though it worked there, sometimes this goes badly, as with when $20,000 in payments lead to a false report about Elizabeth Smart. Also, they get sued quite a bit for libel.

Still, The National Enquirer may be a lot of things, but it’s never afraid to pursue a lead, no matter how farfetched. While mainstream media outlets were all to happy to play along with the Edwards camp, explaining that even pursuing the story would be unfair, the Enquirer slogged onward (to be fair, Fox News did follow up). Some, most notably Mickey Kaus, wondered where the big papers were (the New York Times’ public editor would later chastise his paper because “The Times did not try to verify [the story], beyond a few perfunctory efforts, which I think was wrong”).

So what did we learn from this whole debacle, besides of course, that my IHUM Professor gave Edwards $400? Well, the basic problem with The National Enquirer’s so-called “checkbook journalism” is that it is sometimes quite unreliable. On the other hand, they are not too good to report on low-brow stories that interest people–it’s hard to imagine Count Brauchula demanding a stakeout of Rielle Hunter’s hotel.

The Enquirer’s work does need to be fact-checked by more reliable outlets, and they’ve gotten enough stories wrong that we cannot take their word as fact. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the  stories they have gotten right. If the mainstream media does not want to pay attention to The National Enquirer, they do so at their own peril.

In the early days of American democracy, it was seen as improper and degrading for a presidential candidate to be seen as openly campaigning for votes. What kind of a person would want power so badly that they would do such a debasing act? As I see it, mainstream newspapers are in a similar position, refusing to openly court readers with salacious stories that will interest them, but ultimately have little to do with anything. It’s highly probable that there is a market for both the New York Times and National Enquirer, but others may not make it, and an unwillingness to try to satisfy one’s customers is not helpful for smaller papers.

Given that newspapers currently cover sports, an interesting but trivial topic (which, along with comics were famously revealed to be the most popular sections in newspapers), this idea is not so incongruous with what they’re currently doing. I don’t mean to suggest that imitating The National Enquirer is the secret to saving the newspaper industry (although they were doing pretty well at last glance), but that an aversion to mass appeal is not going to help newspapers survive going forward.

In any case, I want to extend my congratulations to The National Enquirer for officially breaking the most important story of the 2008 campaign, and finally being completely vindicated. Keep up the good work, because Enquiring minds want to know…

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