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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    A Pulitzer Prize for the National Enquirer? Could happen

    Could the National Enquirer, mother of all supermarket tabloids, be up for journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize?


    Wait … yes. That’s right — that Enquirer. The one that starts with E. The one at the checkout of your friendly local grocery store. The one that grabs you withPALIN WAR: TEEN PREGO CRISIS, or TIGER IS A DRUG ADDICT!, or ‘LOST’ STAR CHEATING SCANDAL!

    And there’s the famous FAMILY EATS BARBECUED MEAT — FINDS IT WAS THEIR DOG. Or who could forget this classic from 1963? I CUT OUT HER HEART AND STOMPED ON IT!

    But it’s headlines such as ’09’s JOHN EDWARDS IS DAD OF MISTRESS’ BABY! that might score the Enquirer a Pulitzer.

    For months,Barry Levine, its executive editor, had been pressing the Pulitzer Prize committee to consider the Enquirer’s 2009 reporting on presidential candidate Edwards’ extramarital affair and — all right,LOVE CHILD.

    At first the Pulitzer committee said no, in part because the Enquirer sometimes pays informants, a practice that is known as checkbook journalism and shunned, for ethical reasons, at most newspapers.

    That set off a campaign, mostly on Web sites such as the Drudge Report, to let the Enquirer play.

    On Feb. 18, in a startling turnaround, the Pulitzer board said OK. The Enquirer’s work is now being considered in two categories: investigative reporting and national news reporting. Winners will be announced April 12.

    “”We don’t publicly discuss entrants,”” Sig Gissler, Pulitzer administrator, told ABC News. “”I can only say that we apply the eligibility criteria and if an entrant meets the criteria, we accept the entry.””

    What’s going on? A bizarre one-time event? Or …


    “”All indications are that the board reconsidered when they actually saw our submission,”” Levine says, from his office in New York. “”And we also provided documentation to clear up some of the eligibility issues. It’s great to have this recognition now, and it’s brought even more credibility to our publication.””

    Levine, a 1981 Temple University grad who last year was placed in Temple’s Gallery of Success, is known for his hard-charging style. He has long assailed what he calls the snobbery of mainstream journalists, unwilling to admit that a supermarket tab can beat them at their own game.

    Founded in 1926, the Enquirer claims a readership of more than 900,000, down from its 1970’s heyday of five million-plus, but still healthy. It has broken its share of honest-to-goodness scandals. If theTiger Woodsstory (WORLD EXCLUSIVE: WOMAN AT CENTER OFTIGER WOODSCHEATING SCANDAL EXPOSED!!) weren’t enough, in May 1987, it published the famous “”Monkey Business”” photo showing presidential hopefulGary Hartsnuggling on a boat with a woman namedDonna Ricewho was not his wife. He dropped out of the race days later.

    The Enquirer’s coverage of Edwards (SEN. JOHN EDWARDS CAUGHT WITH MISTRESS AND LOVE CHILD) helped end his presidential bid and has led to investigations of his use of campaign funds. In October 2007, the tab published some of the first reports of Edwards’ affair with campaign filmmakerRielle Hunter. That December, it published a photo of a pregnant Hunter. The following February, Hunter had a daughter, Frances, and in the summer of ’08, the Enquirer printed photos of Edwards meeting Hunter at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Edwards denied the affair, then admitted it, then denied paternity — then, on Jan. 21, admitted it.

    Many mainstream journalists share the Pulitzer committee’s initial recoil. Anonymous sources? Checkbook journalism? Untrustworthy and unethical, they say. They say the tab does more celebrity peephole-gazing than original reporting. And they recall actressCarol Burnett’ssuccessful 1981 libel suit against the Enquirer, which had her drunk in an L.A. restaurant and arguing withHenry Kissinger. The jury awarded her $1.6 million, which was reduced on appeal and settled out of court.

    Former Washington Post executive editorLen Downiesays the real point is ethics: “”If the National Enquirer paid for information or access to the John Edwards story, it would be unethical and disqualifying,”” he says by e-mail. “”If it didn’t pay, I see no reason not to accept the entry.””

    Levine says it didn’t pay: “”Our 2009 work”” — which included reports of an Edwards DNA paternity test, and Edwards making payments to Hunter after she’d left the campaign — “”was done by old-fashioned reporting, reporters cultivating sources, looking up documents, doing surveillance in the field. … I feel strongly that if he were still alive, Joseph Pulitzer himself would support us.””

    The Enquirer’s Web site puts its own spin on the changing media world: “”Today, Tabloid is the new mainstream.”” In other words, tabloids, blogs, cable TV, radio talk shows, and what some still insist on calling “”alternative”” media belong in the same tank with the big fish (who are, admittedly, getting smaller all the time).

    “”The media world is changing,”” says Levine, “”and newspapers and TV networks have to realize they need to grow and maybe expand their practices, to make their work relevant again.””

    Hugh Hewitt, a legal scholar, talk-radio host, blogger and new-media advocate, says by e-mail that “”the Edwards story is an indictment of the entire (mainstream media) and ought to render ineligible any newspaper that covered Edwards but dismissed the story.””

    Others say, in effect, wake up: the walls have already fallen. SaysArianna Huffington, cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post: “”It’s a mistake to continue to divide the media into no-longer-applicable categories such as mainstream and alternative — and to try to pit the two against each other.””

    Robert Scheerhas been both a traditional and an alternative journalist. He was a longtime national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and is now editor in chief at Truthdig, a Web site.

    “”We see ourselves as a news magazine,”” he says. “”We’re not big enough yet to do as much as we’d like, but we send reporters to Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and other places where news is happening, and what we want is good reporting.””

    Scheer says he sees Web news sites converging with traditional standards: “”And that’s by market necessity: Credibility is the gold standard, and the sites that are going to live are those that do a good job that gives people confidence.””

    Even an advocate for a more expansive definition of journalism like Levine acknowledges readily that “”the Web sites are still trying to figure out how they will police themselves, and they’re not there yet,”” adding “”it doesn’t mean the news they find isn’t real.””

    Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University and a First Amendment scholar, calls the Internet “”spectacular”” but insists we’ll always need the larger, steadier enterprises: “”We need to build new, solid institutions to support the work of freely gathering information for the public. It would be a disaster if in five to 10 years we ended up with millions of individual speakers and no institutions.””

    In the meantime, the National Enquirer can put John Edwards on its cover 20 straight days. Levine has his fans, such as Hewitt, who writes that the Enquirer and publications like it, whether physical or digital, “”are in it for the money and are writing good journalism as well.””

    If it’s news, says Hewitt, what’s not to like? “”News shouldn’t be judged by its origin,”” he says, “”but by its accuracy and its impact.””


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