Sometime in 2008, at the height of the National Enquirer’s investigation into John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter, the paper’s executive editor, Barry Levine, found himself at a party in East Hampton with one of his idols: Carl Bernstein, the Jewish half of the team that broke the Watergate scandal. As a kid in the Philadelphia suburbs, Levine scoured newsstands for copies of The Washington Post, a prized find in those pre-Internet days. “Watergate was a defining factor when I was growing up, and what they did was a great inspiration to me,” Levine recalled. “And Bernstein said to me, ‘You’re doing a good job, kid.’”
Levine, 51, is a veteran of the celebrity-scandal news business who directed the Enquirer’s Edwards coverage from the paper’s New York offices, on Park Avenue. He will be as surprised as anyone if he hears his reporters’ names when the Pulitzer Prize board announces this year’s recipients later today. Despite winning a much-publicized fight to gain eligibility for the Edwards stories, he told me last week, “We’re not holding our breath.” He went on, “Whether we win or not, we received a huge amount of recognition from the mainstream media.” And he doesn’t just mean Carl Bernstein.
The Edwards stories were hardly the first serious scoop the Enquirer has scored—there was the picture of Donna Rice sitting on wayward presidential candidate Gary Hart’s lap, in 1988, and the proof that Jesse Jackson was supporting an illegitimate child, in 2001—but it’s the first time the paper has provoked a grand jury investigation into once-viable presidential candidate’s alleged wrongdoing. The paper’s staff has earned itself a place in the pantheon of American muckraking, the long, illustrious history of which stretches from Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair to I.F. Stone, Jimmy Breslin, and Bernstein—scrappy, often ethnic journalists who never let go of their outsider perspective.
The Enquirer isn’t usually associated with Jews. Its founder was Generoso Pope Jr., a Bronx-born, MIT-educated former spy whose father published an Italian-language paper in New York. Its reporting DNA primarily reflects the Fleet Street veterans whom Rupert Murdoch imported into its onetime rival (and now sister paper) the Star in the early 1990s. But the three top guns who oversaw the Edwards story happen to be Jewish—Levine, former editor-in-chief David Perel (who now runs Radar Online, part-owned by Enquirer owner American Media Inc.), and AMI chief David J. Pecker, the Bronx-born son of a bricklayer who bought the paper in 1999 with the goal of competing with celebrity glossies like People and Us Weekly.
And they’ll keep running their band of muckraking outsiders, whatever the establishment in Morningside Heights announces this afternoon.
Timeline: How the Enquirer Uncovered the Edwards Scandal [National Enquirer]