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Pulitzers Consider the National Enquirer

COM Dean Fiedler’s inquiring mind says, “That’s not journalism.”


When news broke that the National Enquirer would be allowed to compete for a 2010 Pulitzer Prize alongside mainstream outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, reaction included celebration.

“It’s official!” blared the supermarket tabloid’s Web site.

On the Huffington Post, Emily Miller blogged, “The Pulitzer Board’s decision to give The Enquirer its rightful place in the competition for the award shows the old guard journalists recognize and respect the importance of the investigation by the paper’s reporters, photographers, and editors.”

Not exactly, says Tom Fiedler, College of Communication dean, who shared two Pulitzer Prizes while at the Miami Herald.

“The fact that they are going to consider it doesn’t alter the fundamental and, I believe, fatal flaw: the ethical foundation on which the National Enquirer gathers its journalism,” says Fiedler (COM’71), referring to the tabloid’s practice of paying its sources for information. “I simply cannot fathom any Pulitzer jury accepting as appropriate the fact that the National Enquirer engages in checkbook journalism. If that becomes the standard, I think the meaning of the Pulitzer Prize would be devalued tragically and precipitously.”

Pulitzer Prizes are awarded in 21 categories — 14 in print and online journalism, as well as in poetry, drama, music, and books of fiction, nonfiction, U.S. history, and biography or autobiography. In each category, seven-member juries, made up of editors, publishers, writers, and educators, examine the entries and offer three nominations to the Pulitzer Prize Board. The board assembles in April at the Columbia School of Journalism, reviews the nominations, and votes on winners. The 2010 Pulitzer winners and nominees will be announced on April 12.

The Pulitzer Board had deemed the Enquirer ineligible because the tabloid described itself as a magazine; magazines and broadcast media cannot enter. But the board changed its tune, accepting the paper’s entries — coverage of the John Edwards sex scandal — in February.

Fiedler has served on two Pulitzer juries.

BU Today: What was your reaction when you heard that the Enquirer would be considered?
Fiedler: I was surprised, because I think the board was on solid ground when they differentiated between the typical entrant and the National Enquirer. I can only assume that what they’ve decided to do is to make less important the publishing schedule and more important what the journalism is.

What they also might be doing is opening the way for what we would consider more respectable magazine journalism, such as the Atlantic or Vanity Fair. So perhaps they’ve decided to let something rise or fall on its merits, as opposed to how often it appeared or where it appeared.

Do you think the Enquirer can win?
I believe that the Enquirer’s stories will land on the floor after the first round. For starters, the cover letter from the National Enquirer needs to disclose how they did the reporting — whether they paid people for some of that journalism.

If so, it’s a fatal flaw. I believe you can’t trust journalism that somebody paid for.

Now there’s no question, the National Enquirer did a gotcha. They got John Edwards doing what he was doing. But the end doesn’t justify the means. We have to be able to say that we attained the information by upholding all the ethical standards that journalists believe in. Otherwise it’s not journalism.

Whether or not money changed hands for the Edwards scoop, couldn’t the Pulitzer Board have said, “If you pay for journalism, we’re not going to consider you”?
I am absolutely puzzled by that, and that’s why I think they must have a secondary motive, which is probably that it’s an opportunity to open the door wider.

It also gives them an opportunity, once they bring it in, to publicly reject it and make a statement about that, too. The Pulitzer Prize cannot allow itself to be tainted.

This must be great news for the Enquirer.
The Enquirer has been looking for some kind of respectability for a couple of decades. And they always claim, “We never put anything in the Enquirer that we haven’t verified.” The problem is their standard for verification is that if they get somebody on tape to say the most ludicrous thing, they’ll say, “We verified it; here’s the tape.” It doesn’t matter that the person saying it may not be credible. So they’re operating on a different standard.

Occasionally, do they hit on something that looks like journalism? They may. But does that make them journalists? No. They’re entertainers, like the old Police Gazette of the 1930s.

Have you read any Enquirer coverage of the Edwards scandal?
Not in the Enquirer. I read it only after it had been picked up and attributed to the Enquirer and run through filters. It took the mainstream news organizations a good while, because they needed to try to verify that there was some credibility to it.

The Enquirer started saying, “They’re trying to shut us out.” Well, it’s not that the mainstream didn’t pay attention. When something like that breaks, you check it out, but you also go into it with the appropriate level of skepticism so you don’t end up spreading a rumor.

Is another reason the mainstream moved slowly that no one wants to follow a tabloid’s scoop?
Perhaps. You’re just unhappy about reporting it, even if you have to. And this is from the guy who did the Gary Hart story. [Hart ended his presidential campaign in 1987 after Fiedler and Miami Herald colleagues revealed Hart’s extramarital affair.] So I know this is not something you do with a lot of joy or without a lot of thinking about whether it really is relevant. Is this something that voters need to know? Where is that line between the public’s right to know and a public figure’s right to privacy? And when it involves something as sensitive as the matrimonial bond, you really want to be careful.

How will journalism be perceived after this?
If the Pulitzer Board uses this as an opportunity to make a statement about what they would reject as journalism, then it could be an important moment. It would be a stick in the eye of the National Enquirer. But if my nightmare comes true, and they somehow decide this is legitimate journalism, then it would confirm the worst biases in the minds of people who already don’t trust the press and who say, “Look, now the press thinks even the National Enquirer should be recognized for excellence in journalism.”

What a horrible, horrible thing to happen.

Cynthia Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu.


3 Comments on Pulitzers Consider the National Enquirer

  • Mark on 03.08.2010 at 11:01 am

    Tom Fiedler gets to decide who’s a journalist?


    He sits on quite the high horse.

    The fact is, the majority of the English-speaking world engages in checkbook journalism.

    We, in America, with our Puritan ways, can’t fathom it.

    Lighten up.

  • Coolio on 03.08.2010 at 11:26 am

    I’d love for Dean Fielder to explain why the Miami Herald’s pursuit of Gary Hart’s paramour was true journalism, while what the Enquirer did wasn’t.

  • Anonymous on 03.08.2010 at 12:38 pm

    As a product of the traditonal mainstream media system himself, it is understandable that Dean Fiedler would come to their defense. But for those of us who are consumers of the news, and who care more about timely and accurate reporting than arbitrary “rules of the guild”, the argument that the Enquirer is a less ethical journalistic enterprise than old-line newspapers is increasingly unconvincing – particularly when those papers have become so transparently biased. John Edwards was very nearly elected Vice President in 2004 and was a serious presidential candidate in 2008. As we now know, he was a pathological liar, a world-class narcissist, and dangerously unsuited for the responsibilities of such high office. The Enquirer got the story exactly right, and published it at a time when it was still relevant to the electorate. By contrast, the so-called “ethical” journalists that Dean Fiedler wants to give the Pulitzers to decided to sit on it, even though they had ample opportunity to develop the story themselves without paying their sources. Of course, the mainstream media has an excuse for its failure to check into well-founded rumors that Edwards had fathered a child with a campaign aide and coerced another aide to claim paternity. They were too busy printing false accusations that John McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist.

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