After repeated denials, John Edwards confirmed this week that he is the father of Rielle Hunter’s baby, conceived while Edwards’ wife Elizabeth was facing a recurrence of cancer.
Months ago, in August, WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., broke the story that Edwards would come forward and admit to the child’s paternity. How did they know?
I worked for seven years at the independently owned CBS affiliate and asked WRAL’s News Director Rick Gall, a former colleague, to share the story behind the story. Here’s an edited version of our phone interview.
Julie Moos: Walk me through the reporting and decision-making that led to that August story.
Rick Gall: As you might imagine, there were many rumors, many things swirling out there. You get this tip, you get that tip. And you hear things for so long and from so many different places and different people, but you don’t have it.
We decided that we really had to work this. John Edwards is not going to call and tell us. You can wait for him outside a building or by his car, but how else can we get that?
First off, the tips are that he is the father. We consistently heard that from many different people, so hearing that, let’s figure out how we can confirm. We kept talking to people, and we reached the point that we felt that sources, plural, were not only consistent, but that this information was firm.
And we were careful with what we reported. We did not report that sources say John Edwards is the father; we reported that they expect John Edwards to announce he is the father. That statement was absolutely true, and, as it turns out, he has in fact announced it.
So we were very diligent in talking with a lot of different people and really got to the point that we had sources who were in a position to know, and they were different types of people. If you talk to people and one of them had told the other, in the end that’s only one source. …
We heard nothing that was ever inconsistent, and in our calls we gave people who were very close to this an opportunity to refute it, to say, “You’re nuts,” and no, there was none of that. … Nobody at any point said, “You’re off base. You’re going to wish you never said that.”
We worked it over a period of time and we knew that what we were saying was on the mark. There was no doubt. And it’s really important to point out we were very careful in how we worded it. And after we reported it we got calls from all over the country, and there were media outlets from all over the country quoting us, and we had to call and say, “You’re not quoting us correctly. We’re reporting X and you’re saying we’re reporting Y.”
This story relied on anonymous sources. What is WRAL’s process for using confidential sources?
Gall: We talk that through thoroughly each and every time. The staff know if we’re going to base a story [on anonymous sources] or refer to [anonymous] sources in a story, we’ve got to talk that through. And you can’t walk into my office and say you’ve got sources. Who are the sources? How do they know? Where did they learn this? Did they read something? Did they hear something? How direct is the tie between that person and the information? …
So we talk about number of sources, quality of sources … and, of course, you’re always weighing, “What are the chances this person is wrong?”
How many people inside your newsroom know the names of the sources on this story?
Gall: We’re going to protect their identities, we’re not going to release them and we don’t want them to escape accidentally. It would have clearly impacted our ability to continue to get quality inside information on this story. So, there’s a very small circle. Small is truly a few people. I discussed the story with our general manager, Steve Hammel, and he was aware of what we had and how we knew it.
Describe the relationship between beat reporting and the sourcing on this story.
Gall: I’m a huge believer in beat reporting; it dates back to the days I worked beats. I believe the way to break stories is to work beats, to build rapport, build trust with many people who will be contacts and others who become sources …, and that’s how it happened in this case.
If there’s a really big story, far more times than not, someone in the newsroom has built rapport, trust with someone outside the newsroom. And that rapport and trust doesn’t come by accident; it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of conversations over a long period of time. That’s what working the beat is. It’s not just working what’s happening, it’s about how and why this is happening and being in position to report this before anyone else.
Everybody can go to the city council meeting and there’s something on the agenda, people will talk, there’s a vote, but what’s happening behind the scenes? How did this get on the agenda? You’ll know about it before it’s on the agenda. Working a beat is critical to breaking stories — not all the time, but sometimes. And it may entail confidential sources.
Was there a single reporter working this story or multiple reporters?
Gall: There are many different people who have had an association with the [John Edwards] story. In this particular instance, it came down to one reporter.
But there are many instances where we have broken a story citing confidential sources where the relationship was built with different reporters with different sources. It becomes a collective effort in terms of reporters and sourcing to be able to break a story. That really takes a lot of work, not just on a reporter’s end, but from a management perspective that takes a lot of work because you’ve got to get everyone in the room, you’ve got to talk things through … How does the person know? Is there an agenda? What is the chance this person is wrong? … And that really takes some work.
Is there anything else you can tell journalists about how you got this story?
Gall: I really think you’ve got to take that time out and really process, really analyze sources. Not all sources are created equal; in fact, they’re very unequal. So when someone walks in and says, “I’ve got a source,” or “I’ve got sources,” you really have to break that down.
If you’re gonna go on the air with a story that’s source-driven, it’s not good enough to feel confident. You’ve got to be sure. …
You could say, “Are you 100 percent sure?” Well, what are we 100 percent sure of? But if you’re not 100 percent sure you better be really, really close. …
And in this day and age, news is traveling faster than ever before. The gathering of news is faster than ever before, and the competition is greater than ever before, and so you really have to be careful. You’ve got to pause for a moment to make sure that this is really what you want to do, that this information is right. … When you’re wrong on a really big story, who’s going to trust you on the next one?