Commentary: Why we can't ignore Sanford

Governor Sanford of South Carolina admitted he had an affair.
Governor Sanford of South Carolina admitted he had an affair. Erik Campos/The State/MCT

Like a lot of people, I grew tired, many years ago, of all the smoking guns and smoldering pea-shooters about what President George W. Bush knew and when he knew it about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaida. Yet that debate is still with us today, because there's a concerted push by some to bring criminal charges against members of the Bush administration; that's not something that can be ignored.

Like a lot of (mostly different) people, I was tired of reading and hearing about the blue dress and the cigar and all the other unsavory details of President Bill Clinton's personal indiscretions long before the House took up impeachment charges, but that whole icky mess remained the news for months, because you cannot ignore serious efforts to remove a president from office.

News isn't just what we want to know; in fact, that's only a tiny portion of what news is. News is what we need to know. It's what we have an obligation to know — and what the media have an obligation to report. It's what's happening that simply cannot be ignored, no matter how much we want it to just go away.

I'm dreadfully tired of writing about the post-Argentina Mark Sanford. I'm tired of reading about Mark Sanford. The personal stuff is more than tedious. And every time I see another revelation about questionable ways the governor has conducted himself as governor, my stomach churns, because as much as I disagree with many of his policies and as much as I disapprove of the way he has behaved this summer, I still believe our state would be worse off in the long term if he left or was forced out of office early.

In fact, I am so tired of all of "the aftermath," as our news department labels it, that I had a serious and extensive debate with myself before deciding to write this column. But the drumbeat of disgust and anger over the continued coverage of Mr. Sanford's indiscretions is getting loud enough that it needs to be addressed.

If you're basking in schadenfreude and just can't get enough of the sordid Sanford saga, don't bother reading the rest of this column; it's not for you. If, on the other hand, you believe that "the media" in general or The State in particular just won't let it die, if you feel that we should just let the governor (and everybody else) go back to business as usual, I feel your pain. But with few exceptions, you're wrong.

First, at the risk of sounding defensive, I'd like to clear up a couple of misperceptions. Although we wouldn't know about the affair if not for The State's reporting, our coverage since the governor's admission is not any more extensive or particularly different in tone or content than the coverage of Charleston's Post and Courier, The Greenville Newsor The Associated Press — the other media that regularly cover state government. Our newspaper has reported some things first, but then the others have reported those same things; the reverse also has been true. And if you think the problem is the "mainstream media," then you haven’t been out in the blogosphere: If every reporter in our news department did nothing but chase down the rumors and innuendo that are flying through cyberspace, they still couldn't get to all of them.

I would agree that enough was more than enough if the continuing coverage of Mr. Sanford were all, or even mostly, about his personal life. Although it's hard to ignore it when the first lady moves out of the mansion, or when she gives her own (much more tasteful) soul-bearing interview to a national magazine, the Sanfords' personal relationship really is not something we need to know about.

In fact, though, nearly all of the Sanford coverage is about his life as governor, not his personal life. It doesn't feel that way because it always includes references to his affair, and because it involves official actions that nobody would have paid much attention to if he hadn't gotten himself into this mess.

I can't speak for our news department, because the editorial department is completely separate. But as a former reporter, I can tell you without a doubt that reporters aren't poring over Mr. Sanford's calendar and expenses and state flight logs and whatever other official documents. I'm sure they're poring over because they don't have anything else to do. They're doing it because they have an obligation to do so.

Once a governor goes missing, puts his staff in the position of unknowingly lying to the public, turns out to be a very different person than the person everyone thought he was, acknowledges that he's mixed business with pleasure on at least one taxpayer-funded trip ... you start questioning everything else he's done. Recall the cliche about smoke and fire.

(His actions weren't scrutinized so closely before because of the inverse of the cliche: We had no reason to believe that Mr. Sanford was the type of person who might use state resources inappropriately, so poring over all those records was one labor-intensive task that could be put aside in order to get to other labor-intensive reporting tasks.)

When that scrutiny reveals that the governor has been using state aircraft for what are at least politically questionable and likely illegal purposes, that's not something that can be ignored. When you find insufficiently explained "expense reimbursements" the governor has taken from his campaign around the times that he says he met with his mistress, that's not something that can be ignored.

When the attorney general asks the State Ethics Commission to look into whether the governor broke the law, that's not something that can be ignored. When the heretofore cautious leaders of the House and Senate start using the word "impeachment" in very serious ways, that's not something that can be ignored.

No matter how sick we are of the whole sorry mess.

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