I (HEART) the Media

The story of Gov. Mark Sanford’s affair would never have broken, were it not for an anonymous tip, a hunch, and an enterprising reporter on the staff of The State, South Carolina’s biggest newspaper.

First, some background.

About six months ago, an anonymous tipster sent the newspaper copies of email exchanges between the governor and an alleged lover in Argentina named Maria. The newspaper emailed the woman, attempting to verify the authenticity of the emails, but never heard back.

Editors were skeptical. As editors should be.

“Because [Sanford] had not had a reputation for being a philanderer, we questioned its authenticity,” political editor Leroy Chapman told the New York Times.

So, in this age of instant news, the newspaper did the right thing: It sat on the story.

Then, last week, when the governor left his mansion without security, cops began talking. Politicians and government officials got wind of the disappearance, and told reporters. The governor’s staff claimed he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail. Tuesday, The State received another tip, from an airline passenger who had seen the governor on a plane, and said he would soon be returning on a flight from Argentina.

Based on the tip, Gina Smith, a political reporter for The State, went to the Atlanta airport to see if she could find the governor.

Here is an excerpt of her account:

It was about 6:15 a.m. Wednesday as I stood in the waiting area at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, squinting my eyes to see whether Gov. Mark Sanford was part of a crowd exiting the plane from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Is he there? Is he there?” I kept asking myself as I craned my neck, flipped on my digital recorder and booted up my digital camera. …

Then, my jaw dropped when Sanford appeared.

In the best muckraking tradition, Smith immediately snapped this picture (at right):

Sanford, clearly caught, suggested to Smith that the two sit down and chat in the terminal. In her column, she says the governor was nervous, measuring his words. She asked him if he had been alone in Argentina, and he lied, flat out: “Yes.”

He may not have been under oath, but doesn’t a governor have a moral obligation to be truthful, especially when dealing with the press? Reading her account, it’s hard not to think of this, from the Associated Press:

Sanford was a three-term U.S. House veteran who once cited “moral legitimacy” when he was a congressman voting for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

Now that the story has broken, The State has released the emails that they’ve been holding, responsibly, for half a year. In them, Sanford tells his lover about a meeting with John McCain, when he was being vetted as a possible VP candidate. (“The following weekend have been asked to spend it out in Aspen, Colorado with McCain — which has kicked up the whole VP talk all over again in the press back home.”)

Reading the emails is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It makes you feel guilty and complicit in an ugly sort of way. On Thursday, July 10, for instance, Sanford wrote:

You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that is so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light — but hey, that would be going into the sexual details we spoke of at the steakhouse at dinner — and unlike you I would never do that!

Maria replied:

I don’t want to put the genius (sic) back in the bottle because I truly believe in freedom. I never gave you sexual details but now you don’t need to imagine you can close your eyes and just remember. I’ll do the same.

If Gina Smith doesn’t go to the airport with her camera, maybe none of this comes out. The governor is free to continue moralizing. Maybe he seeks the Republican nomination for president.

As newspapers across the country stop printing, or slash newsroom budgets, cutting back on community and state house reporting, ceding more and more ground to laptops and Blackberrys and the Twitter revolution, it’s important to keep in mind that we are losing so much more than just ink-stained fingers and piles of papers to recycle.

We are losing out on truth.

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