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Tryst e-mails make rounds, but are they newsworthy?
Question of the Day
"Magnificent gentle kisses" and "My heart cries out for you" made big news this week.
The phrases are gleaned from the private e-mails written by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to his Argentine mistress, published Wednesday by the State newspaper, which built a bonanza out of the titillating revelations.
By Thursday, the paper published more than 40 stories on the Sanford scandal - including investigations, timelines, analyses, reactions, op-eds, a reporter's first-person account and a cultural guide to Argentina.
The paper, however, never found out who sent those e-mails, building its case on circumstance, an anonymous tipster and a timely confrontation with Mr. Sanford. The State editorial staff would only reveal that the messages had been received in December. Calls for comment to an editor and reporter were not returned.
"It's baffling why they sat on these e-mails so long. If the governor hadn't disappeared the way he did, those e-mails may never have been revealed," said William Bastone, editor of the Smoking Gun, an investigative Web site that showcases court documents, police mug shots and other original fare.
"A week goes by, a month - but six months. That's a long time to wait. Their source could have gone to some other news organization or a local network affiliate to gin up the story," he said. "And this doesn't smell like a political dirty trick. Their source would have dropped those e-mails on someone else long ago if that were the case."
Mr. Bastone wondered whether the newspaper had double-checked the "long headers" - or complete Internet addresses - of the e-mails, or searched online for duplicate addresses or references.
"There's a live person out there behind all this, and it shouldn't take an inordinate amount of work to find out if the e-mails were legitimate," Mr. Bastone said.
A series of helpful events brought the blockbuster story to fruition. A nameless source informed the State that Mr. Sanford had been in Argentina. The paper quickly notified his office that it had the e-mails and sent a political reporter to conduct a surprise airport interview with the governor when he returned from his tryst.
"The newspaper made the right decision in declining to publish before the story was proven," said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center. "Even today, I don't think there's anything in these e-mails that's in the public interest. We may discover more on that as the story develops."
Mark Jurkowitz of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism said that sex scandal stories have often been broken by aggressive non-traditional media outlets, with the mainstream press playing catchup.
"The media struggles mightily over where and when to go public with this kind of information. You get the sense they'd rather be second than first here, and have real concerns about when private behavior merits public exposure," Mr. Jurkowitz said.
"It's hard to judge the Sanford story yet. The paper could have been reckless or presumptive over e-mails they couldn't authenticate, but they waited until a major issue arose. Restraint in publishing, holding back - that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Some say that Mr. Sanford fell on his own sword, meanwhile.
"The Republicans know they don't have the media behind them, and that a solution in such circumstances is to resign from a position of leadership," said Andrew Breitbart, founder of Breitbart News and BigHollywood.com, a political blog.
"Many are under the impression that this man was subconsciously trying for political suicide, because he sensed he was rising too quickly in the GOP. He wanted to shoot himself in the foot rather than go the route of [former North Carolina Sen.] John Edwards," Mr. Breitbart said.
Infidelity destroyed the campaign of the onetime Democratic presidential hopeful.
"Maybe Sanford has a future as a Learning Annex teacher in creative writing," Mr. Breitbart quipped.
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