The administrator of the Pulitzer Prize board said today that the National Enquirer is "ineligible" for the nation's top journalism prize, dashing the flamboyant tabloid's hopes of taking the award for breaking a story about John Edwards' mistress and love child.
When Edwards confirmed Thursday that he fathered a daughter with the campaign's hired videographer Rielle Hunter, the Enquirer announced it would submit its reporting for the prize, calling its work "good, old-fashioned reporting."
Besides forcing Edwards to finally admit paternity, the National Enquirer's revelations have also led to a federal investigation into whether Edwards' campaign broke any laws by continuing to pay Hunter after she stopped working for the campaign.
News of the Enquirer's plans sparked a debate among journalists about whether a supermarket tabloid that pays for information was deserving of the top honor.
According to the Pulitzer's rules, however, the Enquirer may be ineligible on a technicality.
"We checked the Enquirer Web site, and it apparently calls itself a magazine. Under our rules, magazines (both print and Web versions) and broadcast entities are ineligible," said the prize administrator Sig Gissler in an e-mail, to ABCNews.com.
Online, the Enquirer calls itself "the ORIGINAL celebrity entertainment magazine."
Furthermore, the upcoming prize awards stories written only in 2009. Given that the bulk of the Enquirer's reporting was done in 2007 and 2008 during the presidential campaign, the Enquirer would be ineligible on further grounds, Gissler said.
The tabloid said it plans to submit its stories to the prize for consideration by the Feb. 1 deadline anyway, and said the board members need to "get their heads out of the sand."
"Obviously, they're looking for excuses rather than have to objectively review our submission," said executive editor Barry Levine.
"If it wasn't this they would come up with another excuse, paying tipsters or something else. The Pulitzer committee needs to get their heads out of sand and recognize that media organizations like the National Enquirer, bloggers, Web sites, and local new news gathering sites made up of laid off reporters are the new face of American journalism and doing the heavy lifting," said Levine.
"The Pulitzer board wants to pretend we're still living in dark ages and won't recognize the National Enquirer because it's embarrassing to award a supermarket tabloid," he said. "But they should come to grips that the way journalism is practiced in America has totally changed."
Levine said he believed the Enquirer, once known for salacious gossip rather than investigative reporting, merited a Pulitzer on the merits of its work.
"Our investigative team deserves the Pulitzer Prize for the work on John Edwards and certainly deserves some respect from the mainstream media, which avoided this story, ran from this story for months and months while this man ran for president," said Barry Levine, the Enquirer's executive editor.
"[Edwards] could have changed outcome of election because of his lies and a cover-up," said Levine. "The government of the U.S. says the reporting we did about misappropriating hush money could mean a crime was committed by a man running for president. While the grand jury is still out on whether to indict him, the fact that it's going on attests to the fact that our reporting mattered."
In August 2008, a year after the Enquirer's first story on the affair, Edwards admitted to ABC News that he'd cheated on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth Edwards, but continued to deny allegations that he had fathered a baby with Hunter.
He dismissed the Enquirer account as "published in a supermarket tabloid. That is absolutely not true."
On Thursday, Levine said the Enquirer would submit stories by the tabloid's investigative team and entertainment reporter Rick Egusquiza, who first broke the story in October 2007, before the prize deadline Feb. 1.
If the Enquirer is dismissed on a technicality, the initial debate it spawned will continue to brew. Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said no paper that pays for information should be eligible for the prize.
"Paying sources is a dangerous practice. What are you really getting for your money?" asked Smith. "Do you get a certain truth for a certain price? Do you get more truth for money? Or will sources feel compelled to embellish for a higher price tag?"
"The National Enquirer has a serious credibility issue. The one time they landed a big fish does not diminish ... that they have a credibility issue," he said.
The Enquirer defends paying sources, comparing it to when law enforcement pays informants for information that proves to be credible.
"We practice checkbook journalism," Levine said. "We pay for tips that pay out. What we do different is no different than law enforcement. We don't pay an individual if the story can't be corroborated by independent sources.
"You can't just get a story like this by writing someone a check," he said. "This wasn't about paying a tipster. This was the result of a great team effort by editors, reporters and the photo department. This was good, old-fashioned reporting: knocking on doors, cultivating sources, surveillance, photographic evidence, late-night meetings with sources," he said. "Whether they feel we deserve the prize remains to be seen. But it doesn't really matter. Our info was correct. John Edwards admitted the full story today. We know we got him."
Before the committee checked its eligibility rules, one former member of the Pulitzer board said the tabloid's reputation and its practices, particularly paying sources for information, would lead some of the jurors who review submissions to disqualify the paper from winning a prize.
"The paper's reputation would probably raise serious questions," said Richard Oppel, the former editor of the Austin American-Statesman, who sat on last year's prize board, the committee that picks the Pulitzer winners.
Twenty-one jurors, mainly journalists, review submissions in 14 categories. They each send three finalists to the prize board, composed last year of 16 members, to pick the winner.
"The board members and juries tend to be people who look at the quality and impact of work. ... But there is some opportunity for discussion of ethics and practices," said Oppel. "If they paid for material, would that rule it out? If I was on the board, I would have a hard time with that."
Similar scandals have earned mainstream papers the prize. In 2008, The New York Times won a breaking news Pulitzer for revealing that New York governor Eliot Spitzer was paying for high priced escorts.
But the prize board has also taken a position against papers that blur the lines of journalistic ethics. In the late 1970s, it did not award the Chicago Sun Times the prize for an undercover expose in which a reporter pretended to work at a bar in order to catch officials taking bribes.