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01.06.11

Are John Edwards and Rielle Hunter Getting Married?

The National Enquirer is making waves this week with a story that the disgraced former pol proposed to his mistress weeks after his wife's death. Jacob Bernstein reports on fact versus fiction—and how tabloids sell celebrity engagements.

What to make of that latest blockbuster report from the National Enquirer, the one in which the tabloid alleged that John Edwards proposed to Rielle Hunter over Christmas vacation?

Certainly the folks at the publication deserve some credit, since they, after all, were way out in front vis-à -vis Edwards’ mistress and their “love child.” Without the Enquirer, it might never have been revealed that the former presidential candidate carried on an affair with Hunter during his failed 2008 presidential campaign and knocked her up.

Still, Edwards is already denying the Enquirer’s latest report. During a brief conversation with The Daily Beast, a family spokeswoman said of the report of the upcoming nuptials, “I can tell you that it’s not true.”

Could the information have been coming from Rielle herself, a woman who has seemed at times to relish her bizarre fame and hasn’t always seemed like the world’s most reliable narrator? “I have no idea where it’s coming from. I wouldn’t begin to speculate about the Enquirer’s sources,” the spokesperson said.

Barry Levine, executive editor of the National Enquirer, said the publication stands by the story. “Many people deny affairs, but when you’ve denied your own flesh and blood, nothing this guy [Edwards] says can be taken at face value,” Levine said. “We’ve had very good sources on this from the get-go.” In Edwards’ defense, it’s worth noting that none of the tabloids or celebrity weeklies exactly have pristine reputations when it comes to stories about famous people and their alleged marital plans. (Ditto magazine covers about celebrities attempting to have babies.) Perhaps the most famous example of this was in 2004, when Bonnie Fuller, then editorial director at the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, ran a doctored image on the cover of Star featuring Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. Her dress and his suit were colored white. According to Fuller, the magazine altered the designer duds of the stars to “better represent the theme” that they were “getting married.” (Of course, later they did, but still…)

Less than a year later, Fuller reached for the stars again with a cover of Brad Pitt and his then-wife Jennifer Aniston, complete with the headline “Brad and Jen Back On: It’s Baby Time.” The day the magazine hit the stands, the two announced their separation. So where on earth was Fuller’s team getting its information? According to several sources at AMI and inside the celebrity journalism business, Fuller and her staff simply looked at pictures of Pitt and Aniston on vacation in Anguilla and began writing a story to match what they were seeing.

The Enquirer has been running iffy stories about the supposed engagement of celebrity couples ever since the days of founder Generoso Pope, largely because such pieces are among the easiest to get away with.

“Against their better judgment, they tossed out all the good reporting they’d done about their marriage being in crisis and went for a story to fit the pictures,” a source at the company told me back then for a piece I did for New York magazine. Nor did the practice of writing to “fit the pictures” begin or end there. According to another tabloid veteran who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, The Enquirer has been running iffy stories about the supposed engagement of celebrity couples ever since the days of founder Generoso Pope, largely because such pieces are among the easiest to get away with. “The great thing about ‘to wed’ stories is that they’re ‘libel proof,’” the source explained. “All of the tabloids did stories saying Brad and Angelina were going to get married. At [several of these magazines] whenever sales were slow, an Oprah/Stedman story would appear. I bet they were ‘to wed’ 20 times.” The Enquirer’s Levine insisted that “we view every story, and our lawyers view every story, in the same way: They all have to stand up in terms of the sourcing and the vetting process.”

Still, it is true that engagement stories are pretty much libel-proof. “Innocuous things like marrying another consenting adult don’t provide a basis for a libel suit,” said Kelli Sager, a First Amendment lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine who has represented such media organizations as the Los Angeles Times and CBS. “For someone to win a libel suit [in the United States], the allegedly false thing must cause people to think less of you. It has to hurt your reputation. If you are said to have stolen money or taken illegal drugs, those are things libel law addresses, not facts that happen simply to be false. ”

Admittedly, the news that John Edwards may be marrying his mistress probably doesn’t help his reputation—but Sager still says pursuing a libel case against the Enquirer would be tricky, given everything else we now know about the man. “You may or may not think it’s insensitive for him to get married right after his wife died, but that’s not the same thing as it being libelous,” the lawyer said. “And given the subject matter, it’s hard for me to see someone in his position having a claim, given the circumstances of his adulterous relationship and separation.”

And hey—there’s ample evidence to show that while readers expect news of a love child to hold up under scrutiny, they have shorter memories where it comes to stories about upcoming weddings and alleged baby bumps. “A lot of it is wish fulfillment for the readers,” said a high-level editor in the celebrity magazine universe. “We’ve seen in focus groups that readers often know what they’re reading isn’t true and don’t care. They want to be amused. It’s about pictures and anticipating and wondering and waiting. It’s just another twist in a storyline.”

Shushannah Walshe contributed reporting to this story.

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.