Commentary: Line between 'mainstream' and 'tabloid' getting blurry

John Edwards 'Nightline' mea culpa sparked media flurry

It has been 10 days since John Edwards went on "Nightline" for the requisite mea culpa exercise with ABC News' Bob Woodruff, having to answer for an adulterous relationship and bad judgment and all of that. It sparked a media feeding frenzy and all variety of questions about the line between tabloid and mainstream journalism and what constitutes a real story and blah blah blah.

The news wasn't that Edwards did it; politicians have been behaving badly since there have been politicians. It wasn't even that he screwed around on a wife struggling with a cancer diagnosis. Men who stray don't seem to be terribly particular about the circumstances surrounding their philandering.

No, the real story seemed to be that the Edwards furor being trumpeted on ABC News didn't seem to infuse the story with automatic credibility. By the time the interview ran on "Nightline" late on a Friday night (designed to minimize its impact in the news cycle), the scandal already had its way in cyberspace and on "Access Hollywood" as well as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

This was less about the fact it was a big-time network news organization and more that Edwards had sat for an interview with anybody. If he had done it with the National Enquirer and video snippets ran online, it would have had exactly the same impact.

In other words, "mainstream" and "tabloid" are labels that really don't matter anymore. "Nightline" appears to be less relevant than a streaming video that goes viral or a bold-type headline on the Drudge Report. Edwards made the curious choice of going on network news thinking that he was operating in the same world as Pat O'Brien seeking forgiveness with Dr. Phil, or Michael Jackson with Oprah, or any number of badly behaving celebrities with Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer.

Those were your daddy's confessionals. The truth as it stands now is that seeking forgiveness on national television is officially passé.

The "Nightline" ratings bear out the fact that Edwards erred big time in believing he could diffuse a political minefield with a few choice quotes on a late-night news program. The ratings didn't move on Aug. 8; they didn't go up, they didn't go down. It was just another night. Business as usual.

In a YouTube world, the question shouldn't be whether a sinner can find public repentance on a television screen but whether anyone cares enough to watch at all. The immediate answer appears to be "no." Why? Because we don't need a top-level news organization to convey heft onto a story anymore. The Internet takes care of that. And what the Internet misses, the tabloids pick up.

Here we had by all appearances a rare major news event broken by a television network. But the big "get" in this case wasn't that Edwards had copped to sexual infidelity to a major news organization. It was that he talked about it. His mistake was in believing that the ABC News part of the equation would somehow quell the sleaze aspect. Instead, all it did was give the story more time to percolate as a joint venture of the Enquirer (first) and ABC (now).

Going forward, the lesson is that it's foolhardy to expect the news cycle to wait until 11:35 p.m. before bestowing credence onto a big story. ABC's release of the Edwards news that Friday morning served to essentially take any steam from its "exclusive."

But ABC News isn't to blame. The truth is that the ballyhooed networks no longer have the presumption of authority once attached to their reportage. They are simply the Enquirer with better access.

These days, the line that purportedly separates them can't be discerned with the naked eye.