It was understandable, really. First, when it bubbled to the surface, it came as innuendo, a lot of circumstantial evidence and unconfirmed implications. Second, the source was the National Enquirer, which — fair or not — gave decision-makers in the media license to turn up their noses and question the reporting (rather than explore the story themselves).
But the story stayed alive via quiet off-the-record whisperings, sly blog references and the no-smoke-without-fire leanings of those keeping tabs. Now, there is apparently photo evidence of Edwards fleeing from photographers at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he allegedly visited for "hours" with alleged mistress Rielle Hunter. Fox News went with it Friday, confirming it with an independent witness, and media-watching sites began writing about it by writing about how no one was writing about it.
Usually a story like this moves as media outlets swarm in to investigate, but today — over a week after the Enquirer revived the story — the mainstream media is still mum. Why?
Mickey Kaus has an idea. For months he's been postulating a theory of "undernews" — stories that percolate in the blogosphere that may or may not take off in the MSM. Back in January, Kaus predicted that Obama's church in Chicago would become an issue in the campaign; we all know what eventually happened with Jeremiah Wright.
Here's a revealing exchange Kaus had with Newsweek 's Jonathan Alter on Bloggingheads.tv in May, which Kaus subsequently wrote about. Alter had expressed surprise that bloggers had not jumped on Hillary Clinton's gas-tax holiday, saying that he'd expected to get his information from the blogs first before writing his own MSM column, saying, "You would have saved me some work... I wanted you to be ahead of me." Here was Kaus's take on the exchange:
There's an implicit model underneath Alter's comments--blogs as the minor leagues, Off Off-Broadway, trying out storylines and scoops that may or may not make it to the Big Show.... I think blogs are (for the moment***) particularly suited to functioning as a sort of intermediate tryout area for burgeoning scandals ("undernews").
But Alter adds a revealing bit of the newsweekly reporter's traditional self-loathing:
"Look I write for Newsweek. It doesn't matter if I'm behind you. I rely on you and other great bloggers--you know, Josh Marshall and other people like that to give me links cause you see all kinds of stuff, you're much better at you know being on top of this early.,And it's not a problem for me , because I writer for the MSM, you know, or on television and I can come to it a little later."
***Blogs now work comfortably as a "middle" tryout area because 1) they are technologicallly distinct from most of the MSM, which still mainly operates in print and broadcast formats and 2) the vast majority of Americans still get their news from the MSM (the Major Leagues), not blogs (the minors). If both these conditions disappear, as seems quite possible--if newspapers stop being distinguishable from blogs and if the public stops getting its news from the MSM--then the "minor league" or "undernews" model of blogging would seem to break down. There would be no "major league." The conveyor belt will have nowhere to go. In that case, we'll need a new model. But it will presumably still be one in which tips, rumors and angles are proffered, sifted, sorted, and tested until a consensus somehow emerges as to whether they are valid.
So: Applying that model, what we come up with is, essentially, the Edwards story: Alive and well on the blogs, completely absent from the MSM. Is the MSM unaware of it? Hardly — everyone knows, and they're all waiting for the shoe to drop. Back in December, I asked a veteran MSM-er about the story, and was told that "we're watching it." But watching isn't the same as reporting — and back in December, John Edwards was still a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination.
Fast forward to now, and the language remains the same: Watching, waiting, while the undernews picks up steam. Right now on HuffPo, one of the top posts is Lee Stranahan's "Say It Ain't So, John" (most popular blog post and third-most popular overall). Meanwhile, on WaPo and the NYT, it's come up only as a function of reader comments (see NYT's three comments here, and WaPo 'chat' questions here and here).
On the WaPo chat, National Political Reporter Jonathan Weisman said they were "waiting" to see the photos promised by the Enquirer, but reminded readers that "Edwards is no longer an elected official and is not running for any office now" so "[d]on't expect wall-to-wall coverage." That rationale doesn't really work, though, considering that Edwards' name has been tossed around as a potential VP or Attorney General contender. His endorsement was a major event (remember how it was timed to coincide with the nightly newscasts so they all covered it live?) and he has said he would "seriously consider" anything Obama asked him to do. (That quote, by the way, is the first thing that comes up in a Google News search for Edwards; the next items are all about this scandal. It seems Google does not distinguish between News and Undernews.)
Edwards himself made this an issue while he was running for President, explicitly. When Katie Couric asked about infidelity as one of her "Ten Questions" for the candidates, the focus was on how Hillary Clinton answered, but Edwards was the strongest on fidelity as an indicator of presidential worthiness, calling it "fundamental" and about "whether you keep what is your ultimate word, which is that you love your spouse, and you'll stay with them." The presidential question is now moot, of course, but back then, this opened the door wide for the MSM to legitimately investigate evidence to the contrary.
Back to now. Why hasn't it been picked up? Jack Shafer thinks it's because it's a heterosexual incident (unlike Larry Craig, which the MSM was all over). But the MSM had no problem with Eliot Spitzer's sexual proclivities, nor David Vitter's, for that matter. In those cases, the evidence was on the record; arrests had been made, investigations launched, mugshots taken etc. Here, we still only have the Enquirer's report, and the "no smoke without fire" argument (plus whatever people are hearing off the record).
But there is, of course, another reason: this wasn't and isn't just a juicy sex scandal involving a candidate for president. It is a story tinged with tragedy, because the onetime candidate's wife is very publicly battling cancer. Elizabeth Edwards is a popular national figure, visible on the campaign trail and an asset to her husband. Again, that takes this story into the realm of newsworthiness, but it also means that the stakes are even higher for all concerned. Ergo, the watching and waiting — for this story, no one really wants to be first.
Except the National Enquirer, that is — and the news under the news.
Update: More from Kaus. He'll take it from here.
Say It Ain't So, John: Why Progressives Need To Get Out In Front Of The John Edwards Affair Rumors [HuffPo]
Why the Press Is Ignoring the Edwards "Love Child" Story [Slate]
What John Edwards Scandal? [Gawker]
The Empire of the Undernews Expands [Kausfiles]