Will the National Enquirer win a Pulitzer Prize?

Cecil RosnerTo avoid irrelevance, mainstream journalism outlets can no longer ignore
celebrity stories, writes
Cecil Rosner.
But the real issue is prioritizing investigative work.

Some days — if not most days — the line between celebrity gossip, rumour and journalism becomes increasingly difficult to discern.

When most of the Western world drops everything to see how Tiger will explain himself, mainstream journalism outlets can no longer smugly stay out of the fray. To avoid irrelevance, they must cover the story. But then the question becomes: how much attention, resource, prominence and seriousness should they attach to the story, or stories like it?

This question was put squarely on the table of the Pulitzer Prize board recently when the National Enquirer decided to enter its John Edwards story in two categories: investigative reporting and national reporting. The supermarket tabloid, known for its celebrity gossip and bizarre news stories, cites its three-year long pursuit of presidential candidate Edwards and his extra-marital affair as worthy of American journalism’s highest honour.

The entry has stoked much debate in journalism circles, with mainstream publications questioning whether the Enquirer belonged in the elite club, and a variety of bloggers cheering the supermarket paper on. Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler initially tried to block the entry. He said the Enquirer was really a magazine, and not a newspaper, and that the publication violates conventional journalism ethics by paying subjects for their interviews. But conventional media did eventually match the Edwards story, and the Pulitzers have finally said they will allow the entry to stand.

If the spate of recent sex scandals has you confused about this one, let me rehash the basic facts. Edwards tried for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008, and was dogged by stories that he had an extra-marital affair with campaign worker Rielle Hunter. The Enquirer did indeed lead the way on this coverage. It was also reported that the two had a child. Edwards finally admitted all earlier this year, leaving his family life and career in tatters.

Sensationalism and gossip have always been a feature of journalism, even in publications that pride themselves on serious coverage. But the private lives of powerful people have been receiving unprecedented attention lately. Whether it’s Bill Clinton or Maxime Bernier, politicians are now on notice that their sex lives may be carefully scrutinized, sometimes even more rigorously than their policy stances.

But should that be the case? While I would salute any reporter for a good scoop, I would also ask any news organization whether it is worth the time and effort to devote three years to dig into John Edwards’ sex life. The U.S. has no shortage of important topics to investigate, many of them far more urgent than a DNA analysis of the Edwards love child. This factor needs to be considered by any jury assessing prizes for investigative journalism.

Many news organizations explicitly cite the need to prioritize investigative work, given the amount of time and effort needed to do a good job on this front. The CBC, for instance, says investigative journalism involves the vigorous and intensive examination of matters that touch upon public policy or issues that affect a large portion of the population. ‘Investigative journalism should bear in mind the relative importance of an issue and should not be exclusively concerned with the revelation of errors, injustice or wrongdoing. Minor matters should not be treated when more significant topics warrant attention,” says the CBC’s policy book.

Several years ago, I heard renowned American journalist Seymour Hersh discuss his excellent account of the Kennedy years, The Dark Side of Camelot. One of the chapters details John F. Kennedy’s now famous predilection for extra-marital affairs. In some quarters, Hersh was criticized for including this detail. But he argued convincingly that when private matters begin to impinge on public policy, the public needs to know. The mere fact that Kennedy had sex with women other than his wife shouldn’t necessarily be relevant to an assessment of his political life, Hersh said. But when some of those women were also connected with gangland figures, it’s essential for this to be reported.

An even bigger question, in my view, is the priority we must establish in investigative work. I have heard countless American reporters lamenting their lack of enterprise and initiative in the years leading up to, and following, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They are self-critical about believing presidential arguments that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. They wish they had done more challenging and investigative work at the time. They promise to do better in the future. But how much better can they do if their budgets are devoted to breaking the best angles on Tiger Woods or John Edwards?

The war in Afghanistan is rife with opportunities for investigative work, in Canada and the U.S. Allegations of torture and government complicity in abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are still worth exploring. How many more Toyota episodes would come to light if journalists would devote more time and effort to such a vital question as automobile safety?

So the Pulitzer jury will have its work cut out as it considers this year’s entries. It may want to check out the National Enquirer’s website, which proudly announces that it pays big bucks for story tips and interviews (In the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, it had to retract a story after its tipsters admitted to fabricating a fantastic account of a family sex-ring connection to the matter). The jury will also want to consider what kind of message it sends journalism students and practitioners as to the type of investigative journalism it wants to honour.

Rosner is managing editor for CBC Manitoba and editor of J-Source’s
Investigative Journalism area. He teaches investigative journalism at
the University of Winnipeg, and is the author of
Behind the
Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada