COMMENTS: Personal is Political

Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards returned to the headlines--not because of his campaign but because of his wife's ill health. The recurrence of Elizabeth Edwards' breast cancer led all three newscasts and was the Story of the Day. It was covered as a personal story first, a healthcare story second and only third as a political one.

Both ABC and NBC sent a reporter to Chapel Hill NC to cover the couple's announcement that the breast cancer she discovered in 2004 has now spread to her bone. ABC's David Muir (subscription required) reported that her oncologist had assured them that continuing his candidacy would not "affect her treatment or change her prognosis" so the former senator decided: "The campaign goes on." NBC's Campbell Brown called the wife's condition "very serious" and found the couple "very hopeful" and "very committed to staying in this campaign."

CBS led from Washington with Gloria Borger, who reminded us that Edwards, now 57, had undergone fertility treatment while in her late forties. Borger did not state outright that those hormones might have been a risk factor for the initial tumor--but seemed to be making that implication. A follow-up in clarification would be a good idea.

No disrespect to Mrs Edwards, but it is odd that her health should be such big news. A search of network coverage since her husband announced his candidacy shows that the Edwards campaign has hardly been a headline-grabber: just one report for that announcement against eleven for Barack Obama and three for Hillary Rodham Clinton. ABC's Kate Snow suggested that Elizabeth was newsworthy in her own right because of her bestselling memoir Saving Graces and her activism on behalf of cancer patients.

As for the impact on the continuing campaign, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, who covered Edwards' unsuccessful Vice Presidential bid in 2004, described Elizabeth's central political role: "He will often refer to her as his conscience." ABC's George Stephanopoulos asserted that there was "never any discussion" of suspending Edwards' campaign "at the top levels." His unidentified insider sources confessed: "Politically, we are in uncharted territory."


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