Sex and the Pulitzers

It's easy to mock Rielle Hunter's Q&A with GQ. The interview, posted online this week, is the first time she has spoken to the press about her affair with John Edwards. "Before I met Johnny, I had a lot of judgment about infidelity," she told Lisa DePaulo. "Now I have a much deeper understanding and acceptance of people's processes. It's hard and complicated for a lot of people to pull the Band-Aid off." Most postmortems were particularly unforgiving about the accompanying photos, which show Hunter without pants, lounging amid her daughter's stuffed animals. "If you're gonna involve Kermit, Barney, and Dora, put your pants on!" scoffed Elizabeth Hasselbeck on The View.

Hunter's reveal is rolling out against the backdrop of a Pulitzer campaign by the National Enquirer for breaking the news of the affair and the secret child Hunter conceived with John Edwards during his 2008 presidential bid. The paper has submitted the articles for consideration in the investigative and national news categories, and by many accounts it has some support from other journalists.

It shouldn't be. Pulitzer prizes, especially the investigative awards, are intended to recognize stories that make a difference. The Pulitzer guidelines only require that the reporting be "distinguished," but juries often take that to mean rising above the pack, not running parallel to it. Taking the Enquirer's bid for a Pulitzer seriously shows how obsessed we are with the wrong kind of political misconduct. Sex scandals aren't just fun and salacious. We think they actually make a difference in the world.

In the Enquirer's defense, its reporters kept at the Edwards story, even as it was largely avoided by the mainstream media. The New York Times's public editor, Clark Hoyt, lambasted the Times for avoiding it, though the paper's top editors told him they couldn't verify it. "I would not have recycled the National Enquirer story, either. But I think it was a mistake for Times editors to turn up their noses and not pursue it," he wrote. The Enquirer always goes after the stories avoided by more serious, broadsheet publications, in part because they have the latitude to do so. When the Times did run a suggestive story about then-presidential candidate John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist, it was excoriated for rumor-mongering. Divining the finer points of politicians' sex lives is fodder for the tabloids. There's a place for it, and the place is near the checkout counter.

True, too, that the revelations would have been disastrous for Democrats were Edwards the presidential (or the vice-presidential) nominee. But there's no indication that Edwards was really going to be the nominee, though he was an extremely early favorite, and there's no indication that the Enquirer's stories really changed the trajectory. By the time the race went to South Carolina in late January, home territory for the son of a Southern mill worker, Edwards had already fallen to third place. The most definitive story revealing the affair, the hotel stakeout, wasn't published until after Edwards was out of the race.

Most of the support comes from the fear that denial of the Enquirer's credibility is elitist. As Andrew Cohen, associate editor at Newsweek, said in an online discussion, "I don't see that the Enquirer is somehow disqualified from winning. To argue otherwise, I feel, is merely snobbery." That's not an argument for winning, though; it's just an argument to acknowledge the publication's work. And it should be acknowledged that the Enquirer left everyone in the dust in what turned out to be a relatively big story.

Just because the story was legitimate doesn't mean it was great. Far more than your average dalliance, the affair reveals something about Edwards' egomaniacal character. He denied paternity of the child to the point of ridiculousness, blamed fatherhood on someone else, and lied in the face of obvious proof to the contrary. The case for its national import, though, relies on too many "ifs." If this man had been the president, or a Democratic nominee, or even an officeholder, the public might be more bothered by his actions. But he was not. The public had already dismissed him.

There was some question over eligibility when the Pulitzer talk first surfaced. The Enquirer often pays sources for information, a big journalism taboo, and has variously referred to itself as a magazine and a newspaper. It was ultimately deemed eligible, but much of the story was broken for 2007 and 2008, too long ago to be considered for this year's award. It's also not the first time the Enquirer has been considered, notes Sig Gissler, the administrator of the prizes. It entered in the 1990s and 1980s for stories including the O.J. Simpson trial, pap smears, and deadbeat dads, though it has never been a finalist, and there's no indication it will be this time. (Finalists are announced at the same time winners are, in April.) So there's no need to worry about the Enquirer getting it's due. Its publishers clearly think enough of its coverage to regularly enter. They're just up against some really big players.

There are recent examples of Pulitzer prizes tangentially related to sex scandals, like the 2005 investigative award to Willamette Week in Oregon, another small contender, for the revelations that a former governor had committed sexual misconduct with a 14-year-old girl. Last year, The New York Times won a Pulitzer for breaking news with the story of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's use of a D.C. escort service. But the latter involved a sitting governor, and both involved potential crimes. An official who is possibly breaking the law is the business of the people. A failed candidate's love child is not.

With the proliferation of celebrity sex-scandal stories on outlets like TMZ, we can be forgiven for thinking political sex is our business. That speaks to another major difference between pursuit-worthy and award-worthy. According to the Times story on the seriousness of the Enquirer's bid, the goal was knocking a powerful man off his pedestal. Compared to other recent Pulitzer wins, that's a low bar. The last two winners in the investigative category revealed in 2009 how retired generals made the case for the Iraq War on television on the Pentagon's behalf, without revealing that tie, and in 2008 detailed the prevalence of toxic ingredients in toys and medicines made in China. Both uncovered webs of misconduct and deception that cost lives. In the national reporting category, the last two are for PolitiFact during the 2008 election and the profiles of former Vice President Dick Cheney in The Washington Post. Those are examples in which information arguably made citizens' lives better.

Reporting misconduct of officials is information we can use and often need. Gone are the days when the private lives of politicians and their wives are off-limits, and that's probably a good thing. Pulitzers, though, should still belong to stories of a higher order. Tenaciousness in reporting is still honored, but the kind of celebrity stalking required for the Edwards stories is different. The discoveries you make watching a hotel room are much less important than the kind you find poring over documents. The Pulitzers are the last place where journalism that serves a vital function is distinguished from the kind of journalism that scores page-views. The only people really affected by the Enquirer's stories were Hunter, her poor daughter, Edwards, and his wife. And now that Edwards has owned up to everything, it's probably time we left the story alone.

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