August 7 column, with links

Folks op-ed sparks lively
discussion in blogosphere

By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
     LAST WEEK we ran an op-ed piece from former gubernatorial press secretary Will Folks headlined, “My side of the domestic violence story.”
    As you most likely know, Gov. Mark Sanford’s ex-spokesman was charged with criminal domestic violence after he allegedly kicked open the door of the home he shared with his now-former fiancee and pushed her into furniture, bruising her back.
    When, to my surprise, he called Tuesday to offer a column on the subject, I was quite interested.Folks_mug_2  Of course, I could not decide whether to run it until I had seen it. And I had to make the decision quickly, because he had indicated his intention to share it with other papers. That meant running it, if at all, the next day. We don’t knowingly run local op-eds that have run elsewhere.
    We ended up running it pretty much as it was, with one exception: I removed a passage in which he quoted what he claimed was an e-mail from his ex to his mother. Before making that decision, I asked to see the e-mail, and he forwarded it. Important context was missing from his citation of it. Besides, this was supposed to be his account of what he did, not his version of her account.
    I wrote an item for my blog about the piece. I included the part I had cut, followed by a fuller quotation from the e-mail he had forwarded. The way he had selectively quoted the e-mail to his advantage was striking.
    There was high reader interest. That day, the story about the new “four-strikes” rule at USC got the third-highest number of page views on My blog item and Mr. Folks’ op-ed came in first and second.
    Most interesting to me were the comments readers left on my blog. In keeping with my ongoing quest to make clear to readers why we do what we do, I thought I’d quote some of those comments, and answer them. I only know these correspondents by the names or nicknames they gave on the blog. But their identities are less important to me than the substance of their comments.
    I begin with “Lisa Turner’s” comment for an obvious reason: “You’re becoming a pretty good blogger. While I am intrigued by all the behind-the-scenes iterations of this story, I do not think it should have been run. You say that it was an opportunity The State shouldn’t pass up, but do you really think that Will Folks was going to do anything but try to help himself out?”
    Mr. Folks probably was trying to help himself out. But that’s not what he did. He defied legal (and his father’s) counsel in doing so. I knew I wasn’t helping him a bit by running it. But I wasn’t trying to hurt him, either. It wasn’t about how it affected him. My reasoning was the same as with anything we choose to publish: I ran it for my readers, who had a legitimate interest in knowing more about the man whom the governor had kept for years as his spokesman, despite his obvious liabilities.
    “Bob Steel” wrote: “I think it is irresponsible to allow Mr. Folks the opportunity to give his side of the story without hearing from the victim. It is very apparent Mr. Folks has friends at The State and was able to call in some favors.”
    If Mr. Folks has friends at The State, they certainly weren’t involved in this decision. And again, no favor was done here, as I suspect any attorney would tell you. As to the “other side” angle: I won’t solicit a point/counterpoint on a domestic dispute. The op-ed page is not “The Jerry Springer Show.” If the former fiancee, or anyone else, offers me a relevant, publishable piece rebutting Mr. Folks, I’ll run it. But I am not going to harass someone who (unlike Mr. Folks) is not a public figure during a horrible time in her life by calling and saying: “Your ex-boyfriend has written something trying to defend his actions. You want to respond? By the way, you’ve got about an hour.”
    “Elsa Green” wrote that “The State Newspaper has made a poor decision in allowing Will Folks to write an op-ed about his own personal problems.” But she went on to make my argument for me as to why to run it: “What is particularly frightening about this case is that Will has been an adviser to the top executive of our state.” Exactly. If the column had been simply about a man’s “personal problems,” I would have had no interest. It had value because of what it revealed about that man’s character and judgment, and therefore about the judgment of the governor.
    “Randy O’Toole” understood: “I think that Mr. Folks has a serious problem and it reflects poorly not only on him but the Governor and the State of South Carolina.”
    Not everyone saw it that way. “John Smith” wrote: “The real winner in all of this is, of course, Mark Sanford. After running headlong into a brick wall in terms of ‘taking on’ the governmental status quo, the Governor has now gotten rid of the ‘pit bull’: the very voice and symbol of his renegade attitude towards dealing with the legislature. Perhaps we will see a more cooperative effort from the executive branch as re-election time nears. After all, the voters like to see results.”
    “Deaver Traywick” thought I was unfair to the author: “My only suggestion is that you might have given Mr. Folks the option of running the piece as edited or not at all. As a writer and editor, I am concerned about the editorial policy of publishing changes or truncations without the writer’s consent.” As I regularly do when I make such a substantive change, I called Mr. Folks and told him of it. I half expected him to withdraw the piece, but he didn’t.
    “Thomas McElveen” came to my defense on that point: “Based on my personal experience, Mr. Warthen is extremely fair in his editing, and very graciously allows op-ed contributors input and even critique of his editing.” I wouldn’t dare try to
say it better.
    Finally, “Robert Trout” wrote, “I don’t get Mr. Warthen’s decision to not run an unedited op-ed piece in the newspaper, and yet run it in his blog. I don’t see the differenceæ.æ.æ..” Personally, I see a big difference.
    One of the reasons I took on the demanding additional work of a blog is that it gave me a chance to say things I couldn’t say in the newspaper for lack of space, or because it was unsuitable. The blogosphere, as you may have noticed, is a very different place from a family newspaper. One way I make use of that different forum is to give behind-the-scenes looks at the paper itself. For instance, I recently posted a Robert Ariail cartoon that we had judged too salacious for the paper, and asked readers whether they would have made the same decision. Most said we made the wrong call. Such is life.

7 thoughts on “August 7 column, with links

  1. Trudy W. Schuett

    Mr. Folks’ story really isn’t much different from many of those men who’ve been caught up in the bizarre world of domestic violence charges. In today’s political climate, those accused are not even “guilty until proven innocent,” they are guilty, period. All those men who have not yet been accused are still suspect.
    I noticed someone wondered why he plead (or was going to) plead guilty, despite his stance of innocence. This is fairly common practice. In one way of looking at it, a man accused of DV today has a snowball’s chance in Hell of proving his innocence, no matter what the facts of the case are, so why prolong the agony?
    BTW — I wish you had trackback here — i posted on this issue at my blog:
    You are to be congratulated for allowing another side of the story to be voiced — this doesn’t often happen!

  2. Craven

    I don’t buy the explanation of your noble intentions behind running the column. Despite your claim to the contrary, Folks’ piece was certainly self-serving. The editors at The State dedicated a large amount of space to allowing an alleged criminal to present his side of events with no public cross examination. Three cheers for not soliciting “a point/counterpoint on the op/ed page”, but without a “counterpoint” the “point” shouldn’t be printed.
    “I ran it for my readers, who had a legitimate interest in knowing more…”, etc. We learn little from a one-sided explaining away of alleged events. As an experienced journalist, I imagine you recognized this when Folks approached you with the column. As a businessman, you also recognized that Folks would approach other papers if you failed to run the piece (as you yourself noted).
    It appears that your judgment regarding the publication of the column was clouded by the fear of being “scooped” by another paper.

  3. Laurin Manning

    It’s absolutely laughable that all these folks (gosh, I can’t get away from that cheap pun) think that Mr. Folks’ Op-Ed was self-serving. Conspicuously absent from your editorial is the fact that Mr. Folks has been the laughing stock of the SC contingency of the blogosphere for well over a week. Mr. Folks’ Op-Ed–appropriately followed by his caricature-reenforcing performance in his interview with WIS Reporter Kara Gormley (he had the construction hat and unshaven face…missing only the “wife beater” t-shirt to seal the cliche)–served him absolutely no good. He sounded positively silly and certainly didn’t gain any credibility from the piece.
    Your running the Op-Ed was totally the right call. Hello, it’s news! Folks is a public figure and, as you pointed out, there’s obviously an audience for this story. I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t have run it. And, as you said, if you hadn’t, the Greenville News or P&C would have.
    BTW, I laughed my head off when I saw that you (or whomever) had included the mugshot and not the ridiculous pic that was featured with the Op-Ed.

  4. Lee

    While USC squanders millions on poorly-conceived research projects, and the state wallows in tax revenues and pork barrel spending, our establishment media provides cover with baloney stories about some minor staffer who got in a shouting match with his girl friend.

  5. Craven

    Umm, hello…, like, it’s not news! *tee hee*
    While the previous poster and the other six or so members of the SC blogosphere may find this situation “absolutely laughable”, those of us who consider the possible ramifications of an alleged criminal being given the opportunity to sway public opinion recognize the fallacy of The State’s actions. Whether Folks succeeded in helping himself is irrelevant. The fact stands that he attempted to do so and was granted the opportunity by this paper’s editorial board.
    Contrary to Mr. Warthen’s assertion, any lawyer–or even law student–worth her ilk recognizes the danger such editorial actions pose to the judicial process. Perhaps The State feels all is OK because Mr. Folks plans to submit to “PTI.” Ahh, but PTI is no guarantee. With a failure to complete the program, Mr. Folks’ case would be thrown right back into court… to be judged by the public… who have now been subjected to a one-sided account of a very serious charge.
    I’m sure neither Mr. Warthen nor the previous poster considered this possibility. “News” is not the publishing of an attempt to influence the judicial process. There was nothing educational in Mr. Folks’ piece. There was only the sensationalistic feeling of reading an “insider account” of the hot news of the week. In falling victim to that sensation rather than considering the ill effects that the column might cause, The State failed its readers.

  6. Laurin

    Mr. Craven,
    I apologize if you took my above comments personally. I guess I did come across as flippant in the previous post. Given the nature of the subject matter, I should have exercised greater care in crafting my phraseology. I certainly didn’t intend to insult you. But, while we’re at it, keep the bimbo allegations coming. I love it! Vitriolic attacks are super cool!
    Though I am sure nothing productive will come of this, I offer the following:
    “[A]n alleged criminal being given the opportunity to sway public opinion” — Does public opinion try cases? I’m pretty sure the “court of public opinion” is metaphoric. Mr. Folks will be appearing before a state court. But even if you do think that the public is seriously at risk of being brainwashed by a piece penned by a largely uninfluential guy (although he must be pretty persuasive for convincing Sanford to to do the pig stunt…but I digress) on the Op-Ed page of The State newspaper, your worries still aren’t warranted. We’re not talking Mein Kampf here. And it’s not as if Mr. Folks were even writing a piece proposing that domestic abuse should be the accepted practice of the land. The nature of the piece just wasn’t threatening. I suppose I responded as glibbly as I did in part because the tone of Folks’ piece was that of a child trying to rationalize his way out of trouble.
    “Contrary to Mr. Warthen’s assertion, any lawyer–or even law student–worth her ilk recognizes the danger such editorial actions pose to the judicial process.” As far as I can tell, in his piece, Mr. Warthen asserts nothing about lawyers or law students. But going to what I gather are the purported merits of this statement, I certainly don’t buy the notion that reading an Op-Ed written by anybody–Will Folks, Jesus, or Mussolini–is a “threat to the judicial process.” Granted, I’ve only endured one year of law school, but I’m relatively confident that The State paper is not:
    A.) a requisite matter of record in SC courts
    B.) Moses’ stone tablet
    (Tangentially related, as for my being “worth my ilk” as a law student, well, I’m probably not, anyway! I’ll give ya that one!)
    I will concede a glaring error in my previous post. I misused the word “news.” I used the word loosely, and I was trying to be cutesy with my little “Hello!” What’s published on the Op-Ed page isn’t supposed to be news. It’s opinion. Your misconception that being “educational” is a pre-requisite for appearing on the Op-Ed page is off the mark for the same reason.
    And finally:
    Whether he’s an alleged criminal or not, Mr. Folks still has First Amendment rights. Just because we might not like what he says doesn’t mean he has no right to say it. Even in The State newspaper. (Not sure about Moses’ tablets. I’ll have to find out what jurisdiction Mt. Sinai’s in and get back to you on that one.)

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