Opinion

Oversized elephant in the journalistic room

Here are the known facts:

Last year, the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper published a story alleging that former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a candidate for president, had an affair with a former campaign videographer and was the father of the child she was carrying.

The former campaign worker, Rielle Hunter, issued a statement last fall denying Mr. Edwards is the child's father. Another former aide, Andrew Young, a married father of three, claimed paternity.

Reporters for the Charlotte Observer and other McClatchy Co. newspapers investigated last fall but could not verify the Enquirer's allegations. After Mr. Young said he was the father, this newspaper did not publish a story.

Last week, the National Enquirer reported online that it staked out a Beverly Hills hotel and said it witnessed Mr. Edwards leaving a room Ms. Hunter had entered several hours earlier. The Enquirer said Mr. Edwards tried to leave the hotel by taking an elevator to the basement, where its reporters waited. Mr. Edwards fled to a men's room, where he stayed until escorted out by a security guard.

Thursday, the Observer reported that Mr. Edwards – who as recently as several weeks ago was being discussed as a possible Democratic vice presidential candidate – declined to answer questions after a speech Wednesday in Washington. When an Observer reporter approached, he said, “Can't do it now, I'm sorry,” and left.

The Observer also reported Thursday that the birth certificate of the child, born Frances Quinn Hunter on Feb. 27, does not list a father's name.

Since July 21 when the Enquirer posted its new allegations, the blogosphere has pulsed with speculation about Mr. Edwards, but with few verifiable facts. Commentary focused on why the mainstream news media have not reported the story. Many jumped to the conclusion the news media are covering up for Mr. Edwards, whose wife, Elizabeth, has incurable cancer.

One reason mainstream media did not report the story earlier is that the truth has been hard to determine.

Blogs are quick to criticize such reluctance as a failure of the mainstream media, but the thing that distinguishes good newspapers is that they make every attempt to verify details of such a story before publishing. It's self-serving for bloggers who do not overly concern themselves with facts to criticize news media for taking the time to determine what's factual and what isn't.

Mr. Edwards' refusal to address the latest allegations has fueled speculation he has something to hide. That may be unfair to Mr. Edwards, but in this era of Internet immediacy, many have taken his avoidance of questions to mean that the allegations must be true. The fact is we don't know – and neither do they.

In these days of 24-hour talk shows and Internet frenzy, rumors often circulate widely with little concern for facts or fairness. But responsible journalism requires making every effort to get it right before publishing it first. That must not change.

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