Friday, August 1, 2008

What am I missing?

On July 22, 2008, the National Enquirer reported than John Edwards had met his mistress and love child in a Los Angeles hotel. Ordinarily I would never have known this, NE not being on my reading list. However, three on-line sites I read and consider respectable and even thoughtful promptly picked up this story. I was - to put it mildly - flabbergasted. This is theNational Enquirer. As in tabloid. As in trash. Why on earth would any media outlet or website with any claim to honesty or decency touch this stuff?

Well, I figured, there must be something substantive to this. Maybe NE has done some solid reporting and the evidence is so overwhelming that no one can ignore it. So I did a little investigation. After reviewing everything I can find, I can confidently report that’s not the case. NE story is based on eyewitness testimony from a veritable army of NE reporters and “corroborating evidence” from countless unnamed sources.

Okay, I thought, maybe these honest, decent, respectable, thoughtful sites are talking about this in order to rail against it. After all, I’m writing about it. No, that’s not it either. They largely discuss it as if the reports were true. They - or their commenters - throw in the obligatory “if it’s true” from time to time but overwhelmingly the discussion proceeds as if the reports are known to be accurate.

One point made by the writers who are passing along NE’s garbage is that the amount of detail is impressive and they’re quite right. The NE story tells us:
- where Rielle Hunter (the mistress) drove in from
- who Edwards attended a press event with before their meeting
- what the topic of the press event was
- what time Edwards appeared at the hotel (“9:45pm”)
- what type of car he arrived in and the sex of the driver of the car
- what Edward was wearing and what he was carrying
- how Edwards looked around before entering (“nervously”)
- how he made his way upstairs (avoiding the lobby, “ducking” into a stairwell)
- what his route meant (“he went out of his way to avoid being seen”)
- what room numbers Hunter had reserved and whose name she reserved them under (no information on how NE knew Hunter reserved those rooms since they weren’t in her name)
- who was in those rooms (Hunter in one, baby and friend in another)
- how long Edwards and Hunter were out of the hotel together (“briefly”)
- what time Edwards attempted to leave the hotel (“2:45am”)
- how Edwards attempted to leave (sneakily)
- how Edwards reacted when he saw the army of NE reporters waiting for him (shocked)
- how long Edwards spent in the men’s room after seeing the reporters (15 minutes)
- who got him out of the restroom (security guards)

In response to all this detail, I can do no better than quote Elizabeth Peters. In her book, The Love Talker, the heroine comes across Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies. Doyle, desperate for validation of the Spiritualist beliefs he embraced following the death of his son, is attempting to convince the public that the Cottingley Fairies photographs are real. In discussing Doyle’s pathetic faith in the clearly contrived photographs of fairies, the heroine says, “Doyle went into laborious detail about how he was drawn into the case, under the commonly held but illusory conviction that detail constitutes scholarly proof.”

Of course, there may be a reason for all that useless detail. Perhaps it’s meant to distract the reader from what NE doesn’t have:
- there is no video of Hunter and the baby arriving at the hotel
- there is no video of Hunter and the baby in their hotel rooms
- there is no video of Edwards arriving at the hotel
- there is no video of Edwards and Hunter leaving the hotel briefly
- there is no video of Edwards attempting to sneak out of the hotel
- there is no video of Edwards barricaded in the men’s room
- there is no video of the security guards rescuing Edwards from the men’s room
- there is no video of Hunter and the baby leaving the hotel

There is no video. In all of Los Angeles, not one NE reporter could find a video camera. (Please note, video. Still photographs presented by NE are not going to cut any mustard with me. I’ve seen too many UFO abduction, alien baby, and half-man/half-animal photos to place much faith in still photography. And those appeared before digital cameras and Photoshop.)

So what am I missing? At what point did an utterly unsubstantiated report from the National Enquirer merit even being repeated much less taken seriously?


Chronology of the Edwards “scandal”

Begin by reading the Wikipedia entry on The National Enquirer. This provides some background on NE’s past work and on the claims by some that it’s good at winning lawsuits.

December 25, 2006: Newsweek writes ”Politics 2008: John Edwards, Untucked” about short documentaries Rielle Hunter is doing for his OneAmericaCommittee Web site. A line from this article is the source of the “met in a bar” line that shows up in various stories about Edwards and Hunter: “The Webisodes are the brainchild of Rielle Hunter, a filmmaker who met Edwards at a New York bar where Edwards was having a business meeting.” That sentence is both weird and ambiguous. Edwards was having a business meeting with an unnamed party in a bar and Hunter crashed the meeting? Edwards and Hunter arranged to have a business meeting in a bar? Edwards had a business meeting in a bar and when it was over he was sitting there drinking and Hunter picked him up - or he picked her up?

September 26, 2007: Sam Stein at The Huffington Post writes
Edwards Mystery: Innocuous Videos Suddenly Shrouded In Secrecy
claiming that webisodes made for Edwards’ One American Committee PAC have “disappeared”. It’s well worth skimming through the first page of comments for some alternate viewpoints.

October 10, 2007, 10:52am: Sam Stein at The Huffington Post writes
Scrubbed: Edwards Filmmaker's Deleted Website Raises Questions
claiming that Hunter’s deleted (but recovered by Stein) Website is suspicious. This doesn’t seem to me to make sense unless you combine it with the National Enquirer story that came out the same day.

Again, it’s worth skimming through the first page of comments. My favorite is Grannyhelen. In the article, Stein asks, “Moreover, why did Edwards choose someone with limited film experience to document his behind-the-scenes campaign presence - ‘the real John Edwards’?” Grannyhelen comments:, why is a recent Dartmouth college grad (and I notice from the photo not an unappealing young man) given so much space in a prestigious post owned by Arianna Huffington? Why is an article with so little actual, factual content given so much play in a blog owned by an Older Woman?

October 10, 2007: National Enquirer writes PRESIDENTIAL CHEATING SCANDAL! ALLEGED AFFAIR COULD WRECK JOHN EDWARDS' CAMPAIGN BID citing a unnamed “friend” of the mistress as evidence of the affair.

October 11, 2007: The blog writes National Enquirer, Wonkette, bullshit bucket quoting Rielle Hunter’s denial of the claims she had an affair with John Edwards. The post sums up, “Just a total bullshit story.”

November 29, 2007: The Daily News gossip section writes Tabloid's affair rumor dispelled, says John Edwards which is worth quoting at length:

The tab's [NE] editors have been promising a followup to The Enquirer's Oct. 10 story romantically linking the married presidential candidate with a female campaign staffer.

Edwards and the woman - identified on the Huffington Post and elsewhere as Rielle Hunter - denied allegations they'd had an affair. But one Enquirer source insisted that the tab would provide further evidence in the form of e-mails to a friend in which Hunter supposedly confided details about her love for the former senator.

But seven weeks after the first story, one Enquirer insider admits, "There's a lot of smoke" but "no smoking gun." Enquirer editor David Perel insists, "I never like to talk about what's not published, but we are still doing the story. The original story was 100% accurate."

Edwards himself has another explanation for the delay. "The story disappeared because it's made up," the Democratic candidate tells us.

December 19, 2007: National Enquirer writes UPDATE: JOHN EDWARDS LOVE CHILD SCANDAL! claiming Hunter is six months pregnant and reporting that both Hunter herself and Andrew Young say Young is the baby’s father. Unnamed sources say this is a ruse to protect Edwards. (Boy, I’d like to meet the Mrs. Young who’d go along with this.) In this story, Hunter is living in “an upscale gated community” in North Carolina and seeing an obstetrician there.

December 19, 2007: The blog writes Is this really happening? quoting a statement from Andrew Young’s lawyer confirming Young is the father of Hunter’s baby.

July 22, 2008: National Enquirer writes SEN. JOHN EDWARDS CAUGHT WITH MISTRESS AND LOVE CHILD! This is the story that started the current uproar. NE reported Edwards arrived at the Beverly Hilton at 9:45pm on Monday, July 21, and left at 2:45am on Tuesday, July 22.

A piece of information which didn’t make the NE article and doesn’t seem to have made it into many of the pieces written about the NE story is this from the Philadelphia Daily News (I love this whole article):

As Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray informed us from the Television Critics Association summer press tour, what makes the Beverly Hilton choice even more bizarre is that the place was crawling with reporters Monday night for the TCA, including newspaper people from the New York Times, USA Today the New York Daily News, the Washington Post, and us.

But no one but the National Enquirer seemed to spot John Edwards.

Ah, it's a big hotel, you say.

True, but the Enquirer says Hunter/Edwards friend Bob McGovern reserved rooms 246 and 252 at the Hilton. The TCA hospitality suite was down the hall in Room 234.

July 23, 2008: National Enquirer writes JOHN EDWARDS LOVE CHILD revealing new “details” like the type of car Edwards arrived in and the fact that the driver took an automated parking ticket when he pulled into the lot.

July 24, 2008: National Enquirer writes JOHN EDWARDS AFFAIR: CRIMINAL COMPLAINT FILED. NE reporters have charged hotel security with various violations of the California Penal Code for their actions rescuing Edwards from the men’s room. The article notes that the reporters were guests of the hotel and refers to “one security guard [threatening] to break their camera”.

July 25, 2008: writes Guard Confirms Late-Night Hotel Encounter Between Ex-Sen. John Edwards, Tabloid Reporters reporting than an unnamed (surprise!) security guard at the hotel is confirming the rescue of Edwards from the men’s room although he says he did not recognize Edwards at the time.

This report also says, “ could not independently confirm the Enquirer's allegations” about Edwards visiting Hunter. It further states:

Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Michael Publicker, meanwhile, confirmed Friday that an incident report was filed with the department by two of the tabloid's reporters. Publicker said that contrary to a published report, a "criminal complaint" was not filed and there are no charges pending.

"It will be looked into," Publicker said, refusing to say whether Edwards would be contacted as part of a formal investigation. "We're not going to comment on the investigation," he said.

Police department spokesman Tony Lee said Publicker told him that Edwards was not named on the incident report.

And remember that NE camera the security guard threatened to break? The FOX article says:

The Enquirer says it has videotape showing Hunter entering the room where she met Edwards, and shows Edwards leaving the same room. However, the Enquirer has thus far declined repeated requests by to release any photographs or videotape evidence of the incident.

July 25, 2008: National Enquirer writes EDWARDS AFFAIR: ENQUIRER REPORT CONFIRMED! referring to the FOX story. NE talks only about the security guard not about the inability to independently verify, the police comments, or the video.

July 30, 2008: National Enquirer writes EDWARDS' HU$H MONEY TO MISTRESS quoting an unnamed source who claims both Hunter and Young are receiving payoffs from “by a wealthy colleague who was closely tied to the Edwards’ campaign”. The story also gives the baby’s name and reveals she was born in Santa Barbara. No word on why Hunter left her cushy house and her obstetrician in North Carolina.

As far as I can tell, that’s the sum total of the evidence for Edwards’ affair with Hunter: they met in a bar; the Webisodes are missing (or maybe not); unnamed sources and unverified reporters’ accounts in NE; and an unnamed security guard found by Fox who didn’t recognize Edwards during the incident (assuming it occurred). All the other posts about this (some of which I reference below) are just posters talking about this evidence or posters talking about other posters talking about this evidence.

I keep thinking I must have missed something. For example, I read quotes like this:

At first, I was skeptical of the National Enquirer story catching Edwards leaving the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel at 2:45am because there were no pictures and the tabloids aren't reliable. Now it turns out that Edwards was at the hotel, so was Ms. Hunter, and that he when he saw reporters he hid in the bathroom until security guards came and got him.

and all I can think is, “What has this guy read that makes him so sure about those facts? What did I miss? Where besides NE did he look for confirmation?” Oh, well, he does say he’s going to post his Internet research information on his Website. It’s not there yet but I’ll keep an eye out for it.

Then again maybe I haven’t missed a thing. In Christie’s The Moving Finger, Dr. Griffith is discussing his fears about the spate of anonymous (ahem) letters in the village: “I’m afraid, too, of the effect upon the slow, suspicious, uneducated mind. If they see a thing written, they believe it’s true.”

The Corner at National Review Online

The writers there posted about this repeatedly, especially Byron York. If you want to see everything, you can start with:

July 22, 2008, 6:33pm: Byron York writes Today Is Fitzmas for Mickey Kaus referencing the NE story, remarking that since money probably changed hands most media outlets won’t touch it but saying “it is good to learn what appears to be the real story.”

and work toward the present. I’ve cherry-picked a few of the posts where I have something to say:

July 22, 2008, 7:35pm: Byron York writes Re: Edwards raising the issue of Edwards being in the running for Vice-President, wondering whether any major media will pick up the story, and crediting NE with breaking the story of Rush Limbaugh and Oxycontin. This is a claim I’ve seen repeated elsewhere. It’s worth remembering that when NE reported this story, there was an ongoing criminal investigation and a named source to lend it credence.

July 24, 2008, 6:47am: Jonah Goldberg writes Tabloid Trash suggesting Edwards should be suing and claiming NE “is pretty scrupulous about its facts. They win lawsuits.” Goldberg raises an interesting point about Edwards suing but here’s the place to keep in mind the Wikipedia NE article’s notes about the difficulty of winning libel suits in the United States and the list of lawsuits NE hasn’t won. Keeping in mind the Wikipedia information about the Cameron Diaz story, it would be interesting to know if the Edwards stories are available in the Britain and Ireland and if Edwards (or Hunter or Young for that matter) would have standing to sue in those countries.

July 24, 2008, 11:02am: Byron York writes John Edwards and the National Enquirer answering a reader who objected to him equating the New York Times and NE. York contrasts NE’s stories on Bush drinking again, getting a divorce, and running away with Condoleezza Rice with NE’s stories on Edwards and concludes the former are bogus while the latter “is far different. Beginning with the original story in the Huffington Post, to this piece from the Enquirer last December, to the new one, it seems to me there's a pretty convincing body of evidence.” York does concede that no one has checked NE’s sourcing and mentions the possibility that NE “is fabricating material”. He concludes with “the Enquirer has been right quite a few times.”

The link York provides for the NE’s story on Bush’ drinking does not work. The correct one is BUSH'S BOOZE CRISIS. He does not provide any links to NE stories on Bush’ divorce or on Bush running away with Rice and I was unable to find those stories.

July 25, 2008, 12:37pm: Ramesh Ponnuru writes "Tabloid Trash" which states, in its entirety, “I'm inclined to think that the National Enquirer story is that even if it's true.”

July 25, 2008, 1:07pm: Kathryn Jean Lopez writes re: "Tabloid Trash" in which she agrees with and expands on Ponnuru’s comment.

Slate - The XX Factor

The writers at XX Factor posted about this repeatedly. The first post I see is:

July 23, 2008, 11:45am: Melinda Henneberger writes Mickey's Dream Has Been Rielle-ized

The last is:

Saturday, July 26, 2008, 10:56am: Melinda Henneberger writes My Challenge to Emily and Mickey: Bag a Philanderer and Then Get Back to Me in which she asks:

Isn't cheering and leering from the comfort of the cheap seats on something like this (yeah, you go out and get that sleazo story that I personally would consider beneath my dignity) the journo equivalent of being a Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld-style chickenhawk? And isn't there a journalistic equivalent of the fruit of the poison tree?

I don’t have comments on any of what they’ve said but it’s worth paging through the XX Factor for an interesting discussion on the privacy issue part of this.

Slate - Kausfiles

Mickey Kaus is - in his own words - obsessing about this. (I’m a fine one to talk - look at the length of this post.) The first post I see (for this go-round - he’s posted about Edwards/Hunter before) is:

July 22, 2008, 8:09pm: Mickey Kaus at Kausfiles at Slate writes Busted referencing the NE story and wondering whether the MSM will pick up the story.

There is no last story since he’s still posting about this right now. If you want to get every possible drop of information in support of this story, Kausfiles is the way to go.

One note about an issue Kaus raises in a June 25, 2008 post and that I’ve seen raised elsewhere: why doesn’t Edwards just get a DNA test to disprove paternity? I don’t think Edwards can get a DNA test. Or rather, he can but he can’t compel the baby to. Only Hunter could do that.

Even if Edwards could persuade Hunter to have her baby tested, though, I don’t for a moment believe a negative result would quiet those who are avidly pursuing this story. They would simply claim that the results had been faked or that some mysterious Edwards associate had paid off the lab. In other words, it’s impossible for Edwards to present the “absolute proof” called for here:

Don Fowler of Columbia, a former Democratic National Chairman, agreed.

"Any kind of report like this, unless there is some absolute proof that it is not true, will be believed by some people," he said, "and the degree to which it seems to have credibility will be believed by more people. And when you select somebody to be vice presidential candidate the number one rule of everything is, you sure as hell don't want somebody who will hurt you."

And that means we’re giving the National Enquirer veto power over the candidates’ vice-presidential picks.

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