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Media Offer Sanford a Sympathetic Ear (for an Exclusive)

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After South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s bizarre disappearance to Argentina and confession of an affair, you’d think he hadn’t a friend in the world. You’d be wrong. Behind the scenes, journalists, eager to land a big interview get, reached out to feel his pain. 

The State newspaper, which had been leading Sanford coverage from the get-go, has a trove of e-mails from media outlets seeking to talk to Sanford or simply to come to his defense. And it’s a fascinating glimpse at how access journalism—and the sucking-up that often facilitates it—works.

“If you all want to speak on this publicly, you’re welcome to Washington Times Radio,” a staffer from that outlet wrote. “You know that you will be on friendly ground here!” And indeed, judging by the other inquiries, Sanford had friendlier ground in media booking offices than anywhere north of the equator:

“I’ve already have calls from others who want to bash. … I’m not doing that!” offered one radio host. “I find the story and the media frenzy surrounding it to be absolutely ridiculous!” wrote a Fox news reporter (seeking to contribute to the media frenzy with a Sanford story). “NBC spot was slimy,” ABC reporter Jake Tapper e-mailed the governor’s spokesman (Update: Tapper responds at Politico). (Disclosure: The State lists TIME among the organizations that sought a Sanford interview, though it doesn’t quote the inquiry.) Read The State’s story for more, plus source material. 

Now, I’m not a mind-reader. Maybe every journo writing Sanford genuinely felt sympathetic to Sanford, which is fine. The question is how many of them were expressing opinions about a story, which they would not express for public consumption, in order to land that story. And more important, it shows how journalists can be complicit, even eager, in generating (or at least promising) friendly coverage (or promising it, or implying they’d offer a less-hostile venue) in exchange for access. 

Sanford got one other friendly inquiry, from fellow South Carolinian Stephen Colbert: “If the governor is looking for a friendly place to make light of what I think is a small story that got blown out of scale, I would be happy to have him on.” Colbert, at least, only plays a journalist on TV.

Update: TIME politics writer Karen Tumulty forwards me her correspondence with Sanford’s press office requesting an interview. It begins, on June 23: 

Any chance of talking to him any time soon?

To which communications director Joel Sawyer responded:

Probably not today, but will see about tomorrow.

Upon which KT advised…

Hope you had the makings at home for a nice stiff martini last night.

…then followed up on June 24, when Sanford’s office scheduled his now-notorious press conference: 

Gin. Vermouth. Olives. Make sure you have these things.

Sawyer’s final response:

Haha. I’m a single-malt scotch man myself. I’ll give you the address if you’d like to send a bottle. Or three.

In the end, TIME didn’t get an interview with Sanford. And as it turned out, a caipirinha or other more South American drink would have been a more suitable suggestion.

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