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Will Journalism Pay for this Pulitzer Decision?

It turns out The National Enquirer will be up for consideration for a Pulitzer Prize in two categories thanks to its reporting on John Edwards' extramarital mess before, during, and after the 2008 presidential campaign.

Emily Miller, a self-acknowledged cheerleader for the tabloid publication's Pulitzer candidacy, first reported this story for the Huffington Post late Thursday afternoon.

As a longtime member of what is called the "mainstream media" and now a watcher of said media, I admittedly don't know what to think about this decision.

For the past few hours, I have been playing a game of "On the one hand, I guess it makes sense ... On the other hand, it's nuts" that has left what remains of my brain tied up in a very little knot.

My quandary is basically this:

For as long as I have been a journalist and for the many decades before, it has been an accepted rule that the media should never pay sources for the information they provide.

It is called "checkbook journalism." The worry is, that information which is paid for could be seen as tainted by the audience that is consuming it. This is seen as an impure practice. After all, you can pay some people to say anything.

But what if the information that is paid for is 100 percent accurate?

The Enquirer does pay sources for information, did in the Edwards' case, and makes no bones about that.

They are not playing by the "mainstream media's" accepted rules for dealing with sources, and never have.

Whether they paid sources or not in the Edwards' case, The Enquirer knocked a story of tremendous importance out of the park.

Shouldn't these results be the only thing that really matters in the end?

And doubly so, in this case, because while The Enquirer was all over this story, the "mainstream media" was busy playing deaf, dumb and blind.

There's my dilemma in a large nutshell.

So What to do?

I have decided to proceed with what at least I am sure about in this matter, in the hope of coming to some sort of verdict in the end.

I am completely sure, for instance, that whatever the definition of the mainstream media is, it collectively fell down on the job in its (mis)handling of the Edwards' story.

It is astonishing that no well-resourced major news entity gave this at least a cursory glance given the consequential reports that The National Enquirer was pasting all over its front pages.

Edwards was a serious presidential candidate, and with all the attention and resources that major media sources poured into covering the campaign, it boggles the mind that not one turned loose just one enterprising reporter to chase the story and see if there was anything to it.

They just ignored it to their peril, plain and simple.

I am also sure this qualifies as a huge story. It was one of the most important stories of the year in my mind.

No matter what you or I think about The Enquirer, thank goodness they were on this one. Can you imagine what would have happened if Edwards had become president, and these reports surfaced one after another afterward? Holy cow.

I am also sure there is some deep irony here that somebody who is not a credentialed member of the "mainstream media" was first out with this Pulitzer story.

Granted, this kind of thing is interesting to mostly media geeks and insiders. That somebody outside the "mainstream media" was the first to get it, though, does speak to who is accruing and reporting the news these days -- and how they are getting it.

Under Miller's byline on The Huffington Post is the tag 'public affairs and media consultant.'

Miller is happy to tell you that she openly championed The Enquirer's Pulitzer cause.

It took her all of three paragraphs in her story to type this:

My grassroots campaign for The National Enquirer to get the Pulitzer Prize has gone from one column in early January to widespread mainstream media support and public demands for fairness. 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.

While I admit to being a bit turned off by Miller's look-at-me style of reporting, her advocacy journalism on behalf of The Enquirer was dogged, and helped get results.

At last...

Finally, I am sure journalism as I used to know it is in deeper trouble each day -- especially the investigative type. Newspapers, especially, are dropping out of business faster than car dealerships.

A vast majority of the newspapers that are somehow surviving are cutting newsroom budgets to the bone.

There simply isn't the money to pay staffers to go after all these meaty, important stories -- much less the money to pay sources for information.

That is not an excuse for the mainstreamers to dine on in the Edwards' case, but is the latest warning that people won't know what they are missing in investigative journalism until it's gone, and that is a tragedy.

In the end, I am against The Enquirer's admission to the Pulitzer sweepstakes this time around. They were playing by a different set of rules than their competitors when they chased the Edwards story.

Whether those rules need changing in this day and age is wide open for debate.

Or maybe, given the Pulitzer committee's decision in this case, the rules have already changed.

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)