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When the Press Is Curious, and When It's Uncurious

Much of the difficulty conservatives have in presenting their side of the criminal law debate lies in what the popular press elects to cover, and what it elects to ignore. When there is an exoneration from a conviction and sentence (an actual exoneration, that is) we often get a front page story.  But when, for twenty years, the crime rate has been in free fall  -- with, and in significant part because of, increased incarceration  --  there might be an occasional raised eyebrow in the press, but only to note that incarceration is oh, so inhumane  -- and, besides, golly, we can't really know the reasons for so much less crime, except maybe sunspots.

The wonderfully selective curiosity of the press was brought home by the coverage of two Presidential candidates, both recently in the news.  The first was one-time candidate John Edwards, who was a serious though ultimately second tier candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and the Party's standard bearer for Vice President four years earlier.  The second is Mitt Romney, this year's presumptive Republican candidate.

Edwards was in the news because of his partial acquittal in his recent campaign finance trial.  But the juicy story was the backdrop of the trial, namely, that during his Presidential campaign, Edwards had been cheating on his dying wife and had a daughter by his mistress  --  a child he denied until forced to tell the truth.  Romney, by contrast, was in the news because, so it seems, 47 years ago, he held a high school classmate down and cut his hair.

The single most interesting thing about these two stories is how the mainstream press covered them.  The 1965 Romney haircut story was a prominent front page piece in the Washington Post last month. The Edwards story, by contrast, was the lonely property of the National Enquirer until, as the blog Powerline notes, the Enquirer's persistence forced a grudging level of coverage.

Why the difference?

John Hinderaker, the Powerline author, does a devastating job explaining why, in the view of the "respectable" national press, Romney's teenage bad behavior was more important than the fact that the Democratic Party's choice to be a heartbeat away was living a double life whose complete moral depravity is difficult to put into words:

I agree...that criminal prosecution under the campaign finance laws was not the appropriate response to Edwards' conduct. But I think a little more should be said.

Edwards is, of course, a skunk. But he isn't only a skunk; he was the Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee in 2004 and the party's third-leading presidential contender in 2008. Edwards is a young man, and it was not at all unreasonable to think that he could be president someday, even after Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton finished ahead of him that year. When Edwards went to the seemingly-insane length of persuading a campaign aide to claim that he was the father of Edwards' illegitimate child, it was not just because he was afraid of his wife's wrath. This, after all, is not Italy in the 1950s; divorce is a realistic option. No, Edwards was trying to preserve his viability as a presidential candidate or, failing that, a nominee for Attorney General.

And, as crazy as his stashing of his mistress and child now seems, if it had been up to the Washington Post and the New York Times, he would have gotten away with it. If criminal prosecution is overkill for Edwards' offenses, it is in part because we assume that there are informal constraints at work so that high-ranking politicians who are guilty of extraordinary levels of dishonesty-we are not just talking about infidelity-will be exposed and discredited. But that didn't happen here; or it wouldn't have, but for the National Enquirer. In Edwards' case, there most likely would have been no prosecution but for the Enquirer, and it was the prosecution rather than any extensive news coverage (independent of coverage of the criminal case) that informed most people about Edwards' failings.

Consider the lengths to which the Washington Post recently went to reveal that Mitt Romney cut another boy's hair when he was in high school. Imagine the hundreds of people the Post must have interviewed, covering every stage of Romney's life. (The Post didn't want to go back nearly 50 years to find something they could hang on Romney, but they evidently couldn't come up with anything more recent.) If the paper could learn, and inform its readers, that Romney cut a fellow student's hair 47 years ago, why couldn't it figure out that John Edwards was stashing a mistress and child with an aide who falsely claimed to be the girl's father, and using rich campaign contributors' money to do it? Not 47 years ago, but last month?

The answer, of course, is that the Post (like the New York Times and virtually all other newspapers, news magazines and television networks) had no desire to dig up information that would be harmful to Edwards-just as they had no intention of learning or publicizing facts that would be damaging to Barack Obama. The Edwards case reveals breakdowns of two kinds that are more or less opposite. There was a breakdown in the Department of Justice, because criminal laws that don't really apply and are far too draconian to fit the case were brought to bear. But equally important, there was a breakdown in the media, as reporters and editors scrupulously averted their eyes from a scandal that would have damaged their favored party, until the National Enquirer forced a grudging level of coverage. (The parallel to Drudge and Monica Lewinsky is obvious.) The latter breakdown, it seems to me, is more threatening to our democracy than the former.

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