The Sanford Debacle Proves Local Newspapers Matter

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June 24 2009 6:07 PM

The Sanford Debacle Proves Local Newspapers Matter

Actually, what's odd to me about the Sanford train wreck is how long it took the national media to decide something was truly amiss in the increasingly bizarre explanations coming out of Sanford's office for the governor's disappearance. For a while, it seemed the press just wanted to chalk the whole incident up to Southern eccentricity. This is unfair to Southern eccentrics. Or maybe the press just didn't want to appear to pile on after the Ensign debacle; there's only so much family-values hypocrisy a country can take. But as a friend of mine joked yesterday, it was if Sanford had woken up in a hotel room with a tiger and a baby and was still trying to piece together a story of what happened for his staff.

To give credit where credit is due: Talking Points Memo has been trying to tell anyone who'd listen for the last two days that there was more to this saga than a guy just wanting some R&R. The site has repeatedly noted the oddity of any politician (especially one with presidential aspirations) wanting to spend more time "away" from his family (especially over Father's Day weekend) and predicting that "hiking the Appalachian trail" was about to become a famous euphemism for misbehavior. But this was all speculation. The truth still might not have outed were it not for Gina Smith, the enterprising, Nancy-Drew-style, sleuth reporter from The State newspaper, who decided on a hunch to go to the Atlanta airport and caught Sanford getting off a plane in the international terminal-thus forcing him to admit he'd been abroad. Up until then, Sanford's office had been sticking to the Appalachian alibi.

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While I'm usually inclined to let politicians have a private life (even a messy one), it's obviously not okay for a governor to leave the country and be incommunicado for nearly a week without telling anyone where he was going or how to reach him, and with no contingency plan should a state emergency arise. Yet, the full extent of Sanford's irresponsibility might never have come to light were it not for Smith. It's a reminder of how much we count on local newspapers to keep politicians honest at the state and city level-and how much we're going to miss those reporters if and when their newspapers are gone.

Sara Mosle teaches writing at Philip's Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., and has written about education for Slate, the New York Times, and the Atlantic among other publications.

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