National Enquirer Now Legit, According to Pulitzer Prize Board

After saying the tabloid was "ineligible" for Pulitzer, board reverses decision.

February 19, 2010, 6:45 AM

Feb. 19, 2010 — -- The National Enquirer is now legit, according to the Pulitzer Prize Board.

The body behind journalism's most prestigious award conceded Thursday that the self-proclaimed tabloid can compete with mainstream news outlets for its prizes. Because it broke the story about former presidential candidate John Edwards's mistress and love child, the Enquirer's staff is eligible for the Pulitzer in two categories: "Investigative Reporting" and "National News Reporting."

"We'll see what happens," National Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine said today. "We want to see now that the Pulitzer people review our submission and we expect, obviously, that there's going to be tremendous competition in the investigative category and in the national reporting category."

To detractors who contend the supermarket tabloid isn't worthy of commendation, Levine said, the proof is in his paper's reporting.

"The fact that we may package this story along with the types of stories involving celebrities that are not typical of newspapers that the Pulitzer committee may look at on a yearly basis has nothing to do with the reporting," he said. "That persistence, that old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting that we exhibited on this story, at the end of the day, is what the Pulitzer committee recognized."

The news comes a month after the Pulitzer Prize Board administrator said the National Enquirer was "ineligible" for an award. When Edwards confirmed in January 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.

According to the Pulitzer's rules, however, the Enquirer was 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," Sig Gissler wrote in an e-mail to last month.

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.

Today, however, Gissler said, "We don't publicly discuss entrants. I can only say that we apply the eligibility criteria and if an entrant meets the criteria, we accept the entry."

Journalists Mull National Enquirer's Eligibility

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."

While the Pulitzer Board has now deemed the Enquirer worthy of consideration, some journalists still wonder whether a tabloid that pays for information is deserving of the top honor.

"Paying sources is a dangerous practice. What are you really getting for your money?" asked Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "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."

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, said, "The paper's reputation would probably raise serious questions."

The Enquirer defends paying sources, comparing it to when law enforcement officials pay informants for information that proves to be credible.

"We practice checkbook journalism," Levine said. "We pay for tips that pan out. What we do 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 continued. "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."

To determine who gets a Pulitzer, 21 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," Oppel said. "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. The New York Times won a breaking news Pulitzer in 2008 for revealing that New York Gov. 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.