If the Enquirer Wants a Pulitzer, It Needs to be Transparent

The people behind the National Enquirer have been making an awful lot of noise about how their reporting on John Edwards deserves to win a Pulitzer Prize. But for all their talk, they're not quite saying enough.

In writing about the Enquirer's Pulitzer dreams previously, I've argued that the tabloid's submission deserves to be considered, if only because the competition's mushy, subjective eligibility criteria offer no solid reason to exclude it. But considering it is one thing; awarding it print journalism's highest honor is another.

A key question is whether the Enquirer "adheres to the highest journalistic principles," as the Pulitzer rules require. Barry Levine, the magazine's executive editor, says the reporting behind the articles in its Pulitzer submission, which include one on a grand jury investigation into Edwards's use of campaign funds and another on his mistress's demand for a paternity test, do, in fact, meet that standard, inasmuch as the Enquirer did not pay sources to obtain the information, as it freely admits to sometimes doing.

But he's less forthcoming about the methods used to get other Edwards scoops. I called up Levine to ask him how the Enquirer was able to obtain what it claimed were spy photos of Edwards in a hotel room holding his baby. He declined to say. "We haven't ever discussed the spy photos beyond the fact that we labeled them spy photos," he told me. "We don't discuss how we obtained the pictures -- whether they were taken by staff, whether they were obtained by another individual."

That's the Enquirer's right, of course. But how are Pulitzer jurors supposed to ascertain whether the Enquirer adheres to the "highest journalistic principles" without knowing that sort of thing? In fact, one of those principles is transparency. That's why news organizations like The New York Times and NPR have ombudsmen whose job is to conduct internal investigations and publish the results.

When I pushed Levine on this point, he indicated that our conversation was over. "I've provided plenty of quotes to other media in past interviews about why I think we deserve the award," he said. "We're just excited to be judged against other submissions."

For the Enquirer to yell about the reporting it's proud of but clam up when asked about the other stuff smells strongly of trying to have it both ways. Until it's willing to subject its methods to greater scrutiny, this whole thing is nothing more than a publicity stunt.