Thursday, March 11, 2010


Here are nine worlds I never thought I would write:
The National Enquirer is up for a Pulitzer Prize.
Before I ask you to wrap your mind around those nine words, let’s review a little history about the Enquirer. First, it is interesting to note that the paper has been publishing continuously since 1926. I won’t bore you with the long history of the paper, but if you’re so inclined you can read about it here.

The Enquirer claims it has a circulation of over a million, and that more than nine million people actually read it each week. Those figures are probably high, especially in light of the fact that in the last couple of years the paper has imposed five-day unpaid furloughs on its employees. Papers do not do that unless finances are tight, and finances are not tight unless advertising is down. So, like other newspapers in the country, it is clear that the Enquirer is not cash-rich right now. However, as it turns out, there would be other kinds of riches awaiting the much-maligned Enquirer.

Who could have predicted it would take the sexual dalliances of a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 to elevate the gravitas of what most Americans considered a rag? Up until candidate John Edwards gave in to his carnal desires with a campaign worker, the Enquirer had a loyal audience who couldn’t resist its salacious editorial offerings, but who rarely really believed much of it. When it was revealed that the Enquirer was right about Edwards, suddenly a lot of us started scratching our heads in disbelief. Then the mainstream media slowly started reporting the story, as if they had initiated it. But the Enquirer was relentless in its coverage, which its owners today say they never paid for. Checkbook journalism had become synonymous with the National Enquirer, but not this time. It was not until the second week in August, 2008, when Edwards fessed about the affair on ABC News that any mainstream publication dared print the story.

All of this brings us back to the nine words: The National Enquirer is up for a Pulitzer Prize – the highest and most prestigious award in journalism. As one who still recalls the days when the Enquirer was running stories about psychic nuns giving birth to aliens, this news is surreal. But it brings forth a number of provocative questions: Why did mainstream media resist their journalistic obligation to pursue the story when the evidence presented itself? If we accept the Enquirer’s contention that no money was paid for information, how did they break the story? And why will they not reveal how they initially got turned on to the story? Should they? They are not legally bound to do so, but from an ethical standpoint, before the Pulitzer board makes a decision, perhaps the Enquirer should come clean about how and from where this information was obtained.

Specifically, the Enquirer is up for investigative reporting and national news reporting awards. As a guy who was trained in traditional journalism, and one who today teaches journalism in a new media world, here is what I think: The Enquirer, despite its tactics, reputation and blatant resistance to conventional journalistic techniques, apparently 'gets' the new world of media, more than say, The Washington Post or The L.A. Times. The new world demands immediacy and stretching the limits of privacy. Why wouldn’t the mainstream media pursue this story? Simple. They didn’t go after the Edwards story because they underestimated the public’s hunger and demand for insider information about high profile people. Some of them probably considered it, but not one of them had the cojones to publish anything about it, simply because the only source of information at the time was the National Enquirer.

Like it or not, we are now in the high tech universe of and Perez Hilton. The more advanced the technology becomes, the more the public expects to know. As far back as 1920, when Photoplay Magazine became the first real movie fan magazine, the public slowly developed its desire to know the inside story of its cultural icons. By the 1970s when People Magazine debuted with Mia Farrow on the cover, that hunger for juicy details seemed to peak. But the real peak had to wait another 25 years or so for the Internet to evolve. Today, celebrities, politicians and other high profile types can essentially kiss their privacy goodbye. Even when they sue for intrusion of privacy, they generally lose, unless they can prove a case of appropriation of their name or likeness. Unfortunately for the John Edwards of the world, appropriation does not extend to news coverage.

So, will the Enquirer win a Pulitzer for its coverage of the John Edwards baby daddy scandal? In every category that is awarded, the prize description includes the words “distinguished example.” Was the Enquirer’s reporting a distinguished example of investigation or national news? I have a feeling the Pulitzer board will not see it that way. After all, we do know some details of the Enquirer’s methods here. Reporters apparently followed Rielle Hunter, Edwards’ lover, to her obstetrician’s office in order to secure photos of the pregnant woman. Reporters cornered John Edwards in a men’s room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to confront him about the allegations of the affair and paternity. The paper did indeed pay for information about the John Edwards affair – even if they claim they did not pay for information that led to the exact stories that are up for a Pulitzer Prize. So, if we hold that the word “distinguished” refers to excellence, eminence or quality standards, it would seem the National Enquirer doesn’t really cut it.

Still, don’t forget this is not your father’s media world. Remember, the anti-journalist, Matt Drudge was the first reporter to publish the name Monica Lewinsky with initial details of Bill Clinton’s transgression. He was right and mainstream media followed his lead. Further, was the first media outlet to report that Michael Jackson was dead. The news was accurate and then CNN jumped on the bandwagon. The National Enquirer correctly reported in 2003 that Rush Limbaugh was addicted to painkillers, and this followed the paper’s 2001 breaking news that Jesse Jackson had fathered a love child. Do not underestimate alternative, non-mainstream or new media. The truth comes at you from odd places these days, and whether those places are worthy of traditional industry awards remains to be seen. I, for one, am on the edge of my seat.

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