Pigeon O’Brien, a publicist and ex-magazine editor, has confessed at the Huffington Post that she was the National Enquirer‘s source for their early coverage of then-presidential candidate John Edwards’s affair with Rielle Hunter. Beyond spinning an interesting yarn about her long up-and-down relationship with Hunter, maybe the riskiest “liability friend” ever (we all have them), O’Brien’s story is telling from a media perspective on a variety of levels, illustrating behind-the-scenes struggles in the political press, as well as humanizing the role of anonymous sources in reporting and gossip. More on O’Brien’s story inside Press Clips, our daily media column.
The Real Rielle: O’Brien and Rielle Hunter, now the mother of John Edwards’s illegitimate child, go way back, to the days when Hunter went by the name Lisa Druck in the 1980s. In O’Brien’s words, the first she writes, “Lisa Druck was trouble.”
The pair spent decades in and out of contact and then 2004 rolled around. O’Brien started to help Hunter with her “foundation” and website, Being Is Free, with Hunter as her typically flaky self, until Rielle informed her friend that she met someone. Someone special.
As the affair bloomed, O’Brien learned more and more about it, all the while fielding phone calls from press sniffing around the story. For a while, she defended her friend and denied the story, until one day she’s consumed by guilt — for Edwards’s family and for potential Edwards voters as the Democratic primaries progress. O’Brien decided to call back a reporter who has left her a message and tell the whole story. But it wasn’t easy to get the story out:
I got all braved up and no one would take my call. I hadn’t noted who called me, so I got a receptionist. “Can I speak with the person writing about the, um, John Edwards affair?” I ventured. “John Edwards… affair?” Sneered the receptionist. I might as well have asked for the person writing about hating cute puppies.
My second call was to a big newspaper. They had called, repeatedly, and clearly were well versed in the affair whispers. Carefully, anonymously, I asked what would happen if I said anything. There was nothing they could do, they said, unless I went on the record and they used my name. Well, no. But I saw light and I just didn’t stop.
My third call was to the National Enquirer. I had just finished helping a colleague work through an issue with them. I had a basic idea of how they worked: Stealthily. I called.
O’Brien also notes a few fascinating winks by the press, who knew of the Edwards affair before they could really talk about it, such as an early blind item in Page Six and an article on the Huffington Post, which ostensibly was about Hunter’s campaign videos for Edwards, but was really a signal about the affair: “to insiders, it said everything,” O’Brien explains.
O’Brien’s role in the narrative was crucial in somehow lending credence to a publication that for years and years was regarded as a joke. For once, they beat the legitimate press with a story that checked out. O’Brien’s telling of that story gives a revealing account of the psychology that went into making that so.
But her role as anonymous source is also interesting because of how she was outed — by her choice, years later and in a blog post. There are anonymous sources in newspapers every day, often high-ranking officials, even from our government, and they float by unscathed in eternal anonymity. But as lines blur between gossip and “real” reporting, something possibly exacerbated by writing online, the handling of anonymous sources can go one of two ways. Even at a place as seedy as the Enquirer, the source is heavily cloaked and just a sidenote, whereas online at sites like Gawker, sometimes they’re the whole story, and therefore, unsafe in their anonymity. Basically, O’Brien, for all the shit she went through, should be thrilled she got to control her side of the narrative. Her whole story is worth a read.
Bloomberg in Business: Bloomberg View, the forthcoming opinion section of Bloomberg L.P., which our mayor founded, is staffing up in a big way, mostly with people who were New York Times-affiliated. Does the Grey Lady get scared or just get even?
Traffic Report: The website for the magazine Mother Jones had a record February, up 420 percent in unique visitors from the same month in 2010, thanks largely to its explainer blog posts, detailing political situations in the Middle East (and Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Gawker confirmed that its redesign has led to a 25 percent decline in traffic, no matter how many times they explain the dating section of Craigslist.