“The rarest of all commodities in this world is love.”
Those plaintive words from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford – a married father of four – to his lover in Argentina are among many intimate epiphanies revealed in e-mails published by The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., following the governor’s return from a now no-longer mysterious five day trip to Buenos Aires.
But as the Palmetto State pours over the romance novel revelations of a wayward politician, there are also questions about why South Carolina’s premier watchdog newspaper sat on the story since receiving the e-mails anonymously last December.
The State’s editors have said they could not confirm until now whether the e-mails, which came from Governor Sanford’s state e-mail account, actually were the governor’s work.
But the tryst’s potential effect on the state – questions are now emerging about whether taxpayers paid for the governor’s trips to Argentina – and the newspaper’s decision to hold off on publishing the love-sick missives reflects, at least in part, on the plight of a newspaper business in decline.
American Journalism Review wrote earlier this year that there’s been “a staggering loss of reporting firepower at American state capitols.” The State is down to three full-time statehouse reporters, according to an AJR survey.
“This is a [case] where presumably a whistleblower was doing the work for the paper and reporters ... failed to smell the smoking gun when it first started to smoke, some of which could be attributed to cutbacks,” says Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University in New York.
Newspaper editors bristle at such assertions. Mike Smith, executive editor of the Spartanburg, S.C., Herald-Journal paper, defended The State’s decision: “The State has said pretty clearly that they couldn’t verify that these were coming from the governor, and [not running the story] is a perfectly reasonable course to take,” says Mr. Smith.
There are other reasons. Southern journalism, especially, tends to be more familial, with potentially scandalous revelations more likely to be kept under wraps. What’s more, journalists have long struggled to balance rumors and even facts of affairs with the public’s right to know, says Jack Doppelt, a journalism professor at Northwestern University.
Writing about affairs “takes journalism to a very unseemly place – you need something more,” says Professor Doppelt.
Many commenters on thestate.com have called the Sanford e-mails “shoddy reporting” that shouldn’t have been published at all. Moreover, the paper has been at the forefront of covering the MIA governor, including being the only news organization to have a reporter waiting at Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson airport to get an exclusive interview with the returning pol.
But some readers are mad that the newspaper held back on publishing a story that could have helped explain part of the political rancor in Columbia and the governor’s growing dissatisfaction and distance from his job.
“It was wrong not to publish them in the light of the stimulus debate and budget battle,” writes one commenter on the State’s website. “Shame on The State for not digging in ... to source these e-mails and bring the governor’s irresponsible behavior to light earlier.”