One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that rumors and scandal take on a life of their own. No one even needs to report anything! Once a story is out there, it's fair game for everyone else to repeat it, often under the guise of media analysis. The story starts at the bottom of the food chain of credibility. Bloggers and tabloid outlets egg each other incrementally on, until eventually more serious outlets pick it up.
We may be about to leave the early stages of such a cycle with the growing scrutiny into the professional relationship between John Edwards and a woman named Rielle Hunter, a.k.a. Lisa Druck, who produced films for his One America prepresidential campaign. Ann Coulter is even involved! The following timeline details the anatomy of an innuendo, including a few steps into the perhaps inevitable future.
• January 2007. John Edwards's One America campaign debuts a series of Web videos about him, made by relatively unknown documentarian Rielle Hunter. The pair met at a bar, where she sold the future candidate on the idea. Hunter subsequently followed Edwards around the country, filming. Newsweek reporter Jonathan Darman, upon watching the final cuts, notes that "in the midst of a short theme sequence that begins each Webisode, the camera lingers over the former senator's behind as he tucks a starched white shirt into his pants."
• August 27, 2007. The Post's "Page Six" runs the following blind item: "WHICH political candidate enjoys visiting New York because he has a girlfriend who lives downtown? The pol tells her he'll marry her when his current wife is out of the picture." This is later reprinted by commenters on the Huffington Post blog.
• September 26, 2007. Young Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein writes about his efforts to track down the Web videos, which have now been taken off the internet*. Stein writes an oddly detailed account of his chase of the videos and points out that both the Edwards campaign and Hunter's production company blame one another for their vanishing act. Stein even checks with the Screen Actor's Guild to get more information and tracks down production assistants on the project, none of whom will say much. Finally, Edwards's people offer to let him see the videos — while accompanied by a campaign minder. Stein says he accepted the offer, but does not report whether he actually saw them or not.*
• September 27, 2007. Daily Kos contributor Ben Bang links to Stein's post and viciously berates the reporter. "Are we supposed to infer something from this non-ending, douchebag?" Ben Bang asks, going on to call him a him a "no-article-finishing, character-assassinating hack fuck."
• October 10, 2007. The National Enquirer reports that Edwards is having an affair with a mystery woman who had traveled with the campaign and met the candidate at a bar. An Edwards rep calls the allegations "false, absolute nonsense."
• October 10, 2007. That same day, Stein posts a follow-up to his original Huffington Post piece. He questions why Rielle Hunter's production company was paid upwards of $100,000 for her work, and points out that she used to be a party girl who dated writer Jay McInerney in the eighties and inspired the main character in his book Story of My Life.*
• October 10, 2007. Ann Coulter, late in the day, mentions the Enquirer story on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC talk show. Daily Kos once again picks up on it and lists the reasons why Stein and the Huffington Post are irresponsible journalists for digging into it.
• October 11, 2007. Mickey Kaus on Slate writes a post headlined "Emerging Edwards Scandal?" in which he notes the previous coverage, mulls what would happen to Edwards's campaign if the story were true, especially since he's been "tacitly and effectively used Elizabeth and her struggle" with cancer (the struggle with cancer no doubt being a large part of why the "mainstream media seems to be strenuously trying to not report it"), and wonders who might benefit. Obama?
• October 11, 2007. Jezebel.com doesn't mince words, with a headline that screams, "Is John Edwards Cheating on His Cancer-Stricken Wife?" "Who the fuck sleeps with a married man whose wife has terminal cancer and THE ENTIRE WORLD FUCKING KNOWS ABOUT IT?"
• October 11, 2007. Washington, D.C., gossip blog Wonkette.com picks up on the Enquirer story, too. After Ann Coulter (who once called John Edwards a gay slur) mentions it, they query: "But, um, Ann? Why would Edwards have a lady-affair when he's a 'faggot'?"
• October 11, 2007. New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer dutifully compiles all of the coverage of the rumor, without adding any information or making conclusions of any kind.
Oh, look, we've reached the present. So what's next?
• October 12–13, 2007. Tabloid news sources will probably begin to hint at the story. "Page Six" and other gossip columns routinely use the National Enquirer as a reliable source, and they will use the growing Internet buzz to legitimize their reprinting of the story, regardless of outraged demands from Edwards's campaign.
• October 13–14, 2007. A more respected news organization like Newsweek or the Times might feel secure enough to tackle the story, using it as an opportunity to examine the "ever-increasing Venn-diagram overlap between blogging and journalism."
• October 14–16, 2007. If it gets that far, John Edwards will have to go on television to address the issue. As when he and Elizabeth announced her most recent cancer news, both will smile too much for everyone's comfort. And if nothing else, his hair will still be flawless.
Update: The LA Times saw fit to mention the rumors last night on their website when Edwards again denied any affair. Meanwhile, Kausfiles picks up on a denial from Rielle Hunter herself, and questions why the Drudge Report has steered clear of this particular storyline.
Update 2: The Los Angeles Times link has mysteriously disappeared, but John Edwards tells the AP the Enquirer story is "completely untrue, ridiculous...I've been in love with the same women for 30-plus years and as anybody who's been around us knows, she's an extraordinary human being, warm, loving, beautiful, sexy and as good a person as I have ever known,'' he said. ''So the story's just false.'' Over at the Atlantic, Marc Ambinder writes disgustedly that the "elite media" has used the denial as an angle, to justify mention of the "trash" story. Unclear whether or not Ambinder counts himself as self-same elite media.
* Our original account of Stein's reporting has been adjusted slightly for precision