The Real Story Behind The National Enquirer's John Edwards Scandal Scoop

John Edwards

The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid that has reported on aliens, plastic surgeries and celebrity cellulite thighs, is in the running for the Pulitzer Prize after breaking the news on John Edwards affair with Rielle Hunter.

He is about to be indicted by a federal grand jury for using campaign funds to help hide his trysts with the ex-mistress.

Enquirer executive editor Barry Levin said he wants to open up a Washington, D.C. bureau and unfold more political sandals. It’s good business for his publication, which will draw in plenty of new readers, but it’s also good journalism, according to Levin. “It still shows the reader that wealthy people, rich people, people who they may admire — when you take away the money, have the same types of problems that they have in real life,” he told the New York Times.

But digging into John Edwards was an expensive task for the Enquirer, which paid for information from sources, signed off expense reports and rented a cottage to stake out Rielle’s whereabouts.

The Times takes a look into the Enquirer’s secret sauce. How did they break the political career-crushing story?

Here’s how it all went down:

  • They got a call on their LA tip line that Rielle was spilling about her affair with the presidential candidate back in late September 2007.
  • Gabriel Sherman’s piece in The New Republic has a detailed account of that first call: “In September 2007, Rick Egusquiza, a bartender turned Hollywood reporter who joined the Enquirer in 2000, was sitting at his desk in the paper’s Los Angeles bureau when he answered the tip line. (“I’m a nice guy, so people tell me things,” Egusquiza says.) The anonymous source told him that Edwards was having an affair with Hunter. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is great,'” he recalled. “Not like this is great, but you know, like this is something I want to check out.” The piece was assigned the next day, and Barry Levine, the Enquirer’s executive editor based in New York, directed the coverage that grew to include nearly a dozen reporters. “We saw some of the videos. It was clear back then, the flirtation was going on. Edwards was like a blushing kid to her,” Egusquiza says.”
  • In the Oct. 22, 2007 issue, David Perel printed an piece about Edwards’s secret affair, but the woman was not named in the piece.
  • Bloggers sniffed out the woman was Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer.
  • More tips poured in, including one that Rielle was pregnant. The Enquirer rented a cottage in a gated community in North Carolina, where they heard she was staying in a gated community. That way they could get pictures of her without getting gruff from guards.
  • Reporters looked up local obstetricians and staked out two or three locations for more than two weeks.
  • They finally saw Rielle heading in for an appointment and snapped photos.
  • They rolled out their big “John Edwards Love Child Scandal” scoop in the Dec. 31 issue under seven reporters’ bylines.
  • On July 22, The Enquirer published another article noting that Edwards “was caught visiting his mistress and secret love child.” Photos were posted in its Aug. 18 issue that showed him playing with the baby at a hotel.
  • Boom! The story exploded across the mainstream media.
  • On Aug. 8, Edwards appeared on “Nightline” and sent out a statement explaining himself, although he would not admit he was the father of the baby until months later.

Now the Enquirer is in the running for the Pulitzer. Some critics will say they don’t deserve the prize, since they posted articles from anonymous sources and paid some tipsters for information. But other admired journalists, like the New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Seymour Hersh, have used anonymous sources, although not without criticism.

It comes down to whether the Enquirer fulfilled a journalistic mission–and they did. They dug up the truth about a politician who was deceiving his constituents. They combined hard-nosed shoeleather reporting with unconventional (to traditional media) reporting tactics. The Pulitzer board should hand them a prize, unless they are too snobby to give credit where credit is due.

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