Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Hopefully The Last Word On John Edwards

Michael Calderone at Politico asks whether the press is doing a decent job vetting Presidential candidates, in light of the John Edwards revelations...

Over the past few weeks, the world has learned quite enough about John Edwards – from the lies he told in trying to cover up an adulterous affair to the compulsive vanity that left some people close to him questioning his judgment and even his grip on reality.

Democrats who seriously considered making Edwards the party’s 2008 presidential nominee could be forgiven for asking: Now you tell us?

The revelations about Edwards, contained in two best-selling books, have undermined one of the favorite conceits of political journalism, that the intensive scrutiny given candidates by reporters during a presidential campaign is an excellent filter to determine who is fit for the White House.

While the media “usually does well” in vetting candidates, said presidential historian Michael Beschloss, “Edwards is a good case” in which it didn’t.

And that failure is worrisome in a changed political world where politicians - be they Barack Obama or Sarah Palin - can burst upon the national stage and seemingly overnight become candidates for higher office.

The media, according to Beschloss, now has “a much bigger responsibility than it used to.” In the past, he said, the political establishment “would usually have known the candidate for a long time, and if there were big problems, they probably would have known about those, and tried to make sure those people wouldn’t be nominated.”
Calderone's story briefly hits upon the fact that conservatives tend to think the failure to vet is ideological, but spends most of the story trying to figure out where the blame should go for the failure to get the story. As you might guess, I think he's burying the real problem for the press -- many in the mainstream media did not want to cover the Edwards story. By contrast, Sarah Palin's vetting by the media in 2008 was insane. Loyal reader ST recently sent me this post by Andrew Sullivan, a mea culpa by Sullivan for failing to cover Edwards as aggressively as Palin...

I've been thinking about what seems to me a double standard in my treatment of vice-presidential frauds, with respect to Sarah Palin and John Edwards, and trying to figure out where I went wrong. No, I'm not backtracking on Palin: all I regret is not being able to expose her for real yet. But I'm a blogger not an investigative reporter; my job as I see it, is to make sense of the facts on the table and disseminate them, not to do the vital legwork to get new facts. And there's also the obvious fact that Palin was a total unknown and we had only two months to figure out who she was, especially since she wasn't vetted by McCain in any serious way. But Edwards came closer to power than Palin did in the end - Bush's second victory was nowhere near as decisive as Obama's. And we know now what a narcissistic creep and liar he was. I don't believe that politicians should be saints, but I do believe that character matters, which is why my favorite presidents remain Reagan and Obama.

So why did I let it go? My first reason is my leeriness of investigating people's sex lives. I had my own ransacked a decade ago and it was a brutalizing experience. The exposure of such intimate thing coarsens our discourse, violates human dignity and should, in my view, be done only if massive hypocrisy is on the table and the person is more than just a minor public figure. That's why I've long opposed outing people.

So I steered clear out of this sensitivity. I barely covered the Tiger Woods stuff for those reasons, and even came to defend Clinton in the end because of the callousness and fanaticism of Ken Starr. But there was something else at work here in the case of Edwards, I suspect.

It just seemed too awful for me to believe. I mean his wife, whom I took to be a very decent person, had terminal cancer. Although adultery is extremely common - especially among people disturbed enough to seek political office - I dismissed it too easily. I mean his wife was confronting death on a daily basis. I just couldn't believe a husband could do that to his wife then. I also felt protective toward Elizabeth, feeling that investigating this would be deeply hurtful to a woman faced with mortality. Maybe my own brushes with mortality affected me in this as well.

In all this, of course, I was wrong. It really was that bad, and if Game Change is to be believed (and I think it broadly is), it was even worse. My mistake as a journalist was in making an assumption of a baseline of decency in public officials that it is not my job to make. My job is to assume nothing and to trust nothing until verified. One doesn't have to pry; but when rumors emerge, we should not be deferent with public officials. We should ask questions.
ST asked whether I felt vindicated by Sullivan's statement. I think I feel heartened that Sullivan sees one of the issues that I did, that anyone who wanted to pick apart Palin for having deficiencies in her character might have done well to say the same about Edwards, where the flaws are (in my eyes) more readily apparent. Now, Sullivan probably doesn't agree that Edwards is as unprepared for the Presidency as Sarah Palin (or, for that matter, the current President). But it's pretty clear that Palin was subjected to lots of questions about her preparedness, whereas few in the media ever spent time wondering why a former trial lawyer with less than one term in the Senate was actually qualified to be VP for John Kerry. But I'll settle for people realizing that Edwards' vetting was inadequate.

At the same time, I don't think it's Sullivan's job to issue the mea culpa. As he noted, he's a blogger, not an investigative reporter, or someone who's reporting on the Presidential race. He traffics in rumors about Sarah Palin and chose not to do so about John Edwards, but bloggers tend to blog about what interests them, and Sullivan's unhealthy obsession with Palin (which tends toward the publication of thoroughly unsubstantiated rumors) hurts his credibility. He doesn't need to traffic in such stories about Edwards, just to prove that he's even-handed. What reporters need to do is follow actual stories to determine their veracity. As a blogger, Sullivan does more reporting about the news than gathering it -- here, he's been ill-served by the news gatherers he trusted. Perhaps the best lesson might be to learn to trust the National Enquirer, of all things, since they reported the story and got it right.

The bigger issue is why the media did not cover this story. There is a decent argument to be made that the failure to cover the story stemmed from factors other than political bias -- Sullivan makes a more decent case for it in his blog post, and I think those factors played a role in the decision not to report the story. But on balance, I think it's also likely that bias played a role in the failure to report the story. Recall that in the same campaign season when the media was ignoring the Enquirer's work on Edwards, the New York Times published a hit piece on John McCain alleging that he had an improper relationship with a lobbyist. And in 2004, the mainstream media ignored the Swift Boat Veterans until John Kerry was forced to take on their accusations. And don't get me started on Dan Rather.

I think the conservative distrust of the mainstream media is fueled by such episodes. I have trouble believing that a GOP Presidential candidate would ever make it through the campaign without getting vetted adequately by the media; by contrast, I'm pretty sure most Democrats will cruise unless opposition within their own party tries to sink them. The downside for Democrats in this double standard is that their candidates may not be adequately prepped for dealing with adversity from adverse stories (see Kerry in 2004) or for dealing with adversity once in the office (see, well, now).

As to John Edwards... I don't know that the media failed the populace in 2004 by failing to figure out he was a narcissistic douchebag, or at least figure it out and report it -- I suspected it in 2004 from afar, and I'm guessing at least some journalists saw stuff that confirmed what I believed (that he was a phony). But they failed in 2008 -- and if they can't admit that it was at least in part due to bias, it's why they will continue to fail in the future.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home