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Lett: Why we published the Sanford e-mails

JOURNALISM can be a messy business, and few things are messier than reporting on infidelity.

The travel partners of infidelity are shame, deception, embarrassment, hurt and heartache — ugly, negative, soul-diminishing feelings. There is no joy among responsible journalists in telling stories about infidelity and its seat mate, personal failure.

But journalists are called upon to describe life in full by reporting the good and the bad, the glad and the sad.

The surprisingly messy life of Gov. Mark Sanford last week tested the judgment and experience of journalists at The State. Their work helped place in public view the governor’s affair with a woman in Argentina and its impact on his performance in the service of South Carolina.

Readers have applauded The State for digging into the story and revealing how the governor tried to hide the truth in explaining his curious whereabouts.

But they have differed sharply on whether the paper acted appropriately in publishing personal e-mails between the governor and the woman.

Some said publishing the e-mails (provided anonymously to The State some months ago) amounted to an unfair, sensationalistic invasion of privacy.

Other readers said we not only should have published the e-mails, but should have done it sooner.

News stories in The State have explained how we dealt with the e-mails. A story on Page A1 of today’s editions shows how they provoked disclosure from the governor and his advisers.

Inside our newsroom, the e-mails helped reporters sort fact from falsehood and pursue a line of reporting.

Newsrooms receive all sorts of tips. Some are accurate. Most are not. Many come from anonymous sources with hidden or special agendas.

Some are hoaxes.

The Sanford e-mails arrived at The State Dec. 30 as an e-mail from an anonymous source. Efforts to reach that source and the woman in Argentina have been unsuccessful. To staffers covering the governor, allegations of infidelity with a woman in Argentina seemed intriguing, but unlikely. Sanford and his wife had been seen not only as happily married, but also as ideological and strategic partners in his political career.

We had no sources to confirm an affair and no context for making the e-mails public at that time. We chose not to confront the governor directly on the assumption that he could deny the relationship. In any story, confronting a source too soon can change the environment and make fact-finding more difficult. We also were concerned that word could leak that the e-mails existed, causing our competitors to roil the situation.

Moreover, this newspaper practices what is known as “journalism of verification.” It is our standard to publish what we believe can be supported by facts. That standard could not be met months ago to enable us to publish the e-mails.

With the start of a new legislative season and the ensuing drama around Gov. Sanford’s positions on how federal stimulus money could be used, we moved to daily public policy reporting.

When a state senator last week asked why nobody seemed to know where the governor had gone, he kicked over a can that gave the e-mails new purpose. Out of the can came dissembling, misinformation and mistruths from those in and around the governor’s office.

The newsroom’s job was to answer the essential “Four Ws” that go with any news story: Who, What, When and Where. Those facts produced coverage at the beginning of the week.

The Sanford e-mails helped address a fifth “W”: Why.

Why had the governor misled staffers and others about his whereabouts?

The e-mails, and a tip to the newsroom from a traveler who said he had seen the governor on a flight to Argentina the previous week, caused State staffers to check flight schedules between Atlanta and Argentina. On Wednesday morning, a State reporter met a surprised Mark Sanford upon his arrival in Georgia.

The same morning, State editors shared our knowledge of the e-mails with individuals in the governor’s office and inner circle. The result: Within a few short hours, Mr. Sanford stood at a press conference where he revealed his indiscretions.

Newspapers spend countless hours reporting and writing about public figures. The goal is to help citizens better understand those elected to serve in public office. Much of what is written about elected leaders is what they themselves control: their voting records, their speeches, their press releases, the information they share in interviews.

In profiling leaders, reporters also rely upon the comments and observations of those who know the individual and can comment from a valid vantage point. In such instances, reporters must rely upon sources being truthful and complete.

Then, every so often, unanticipated events occur that provide an unfiltered look into the character and behavior of a leader. In the case of one president, it was hours of raw, unflattering tapes of conversation inside the White House. In the case of another president, revelations about a stained dressed helped reveal a secret liaison.

In the case of Mr. Sanford, the e-mails emerged as a way to understand why he acted as he did.

Some of the e-mail content is messy and unpleasant, to be sure. But in the end, we chose to publish the e-mails rather than deny citizens information about a man they twice chose to guide this state.

It was messy but, we believe, appropriate.

Mr. Lett, who oversees The State’s news and editorial departments, can be reached at

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