It’s interesting — to me, anyway, as a longtime editor — to watch what’s happening as general-circulation newspapers do less of what they once did.
I recently had breakfast with Donita Todd, general manager of WIS, and her news director Rashida Jones (no, not that Rashida Jones, this Rashida Jones). They told me about some new things they were doing at the station, particularly their stepped-up investigative efforts.
But even if they hadn’t told me they were putting new effort into that direction, I would have noticed.
For instance, this morning, my attention was drawn (via Twitter, of course) to this story on the WIS website, by the station’s Jody Barr. An excerpt:
LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC (WIS) – A secret audio recording of Lexington town councilman Danny Frazier gives a detailed look inside an underground video poker operation working inside Lexington County. Frazier brags about his ability to operate illegal video poker sweepstakes businesses within Lexington County. A WIS investigation uncovers Frazier’s political connections and whether those connections are allowing him to continue doing business.
We obtained the recording from a source who secretly recorded a conversation with Frazier. The source posed as a businessman, interested in getting into the illegal video poker operation inside Lexington County. The source went undercover after fearing Lexington County law enforcement was purposefully ignoring and protecting Frazier’s operations. The recording links Frazier to at least two separate sweepstakes businesses, both near West Columbia.
The people who made the recordings tell WIS they have turned them over to state and federal authorities…
The recording indeed is fascinating. Of course, it raises a lot of questions in my mind that might not occur to some readers — questions the reporter would have had to answer for the story to get into any newspaper I ever edited.
We would have had a long, long conversation about this self-appointed Batman who went “undercover,” starting with the word itself. Can average citizens technically go “undercover?” Doesn’t the term refer to a law enforcement officer hiding the fact that that’s what he is? What does it mean when a layman does it? What are the implications? What sort of deception was involved, and to what extent does it expose the individual, or the media outlet that uses the product, to allegations of illegality? Who takes that upon himself, however lofty his motives? And speaking of that, what were his motives, and what does that tell us? (Ultimately, the test is whether the information is good, not the motives of the source. But knowing the motive could lead to relevant questions that I can’t even imagine at this point.)
And why are we concealing his identity? There may be a good reason, but I’d like to hear it.
I’d also like to know whether the recording, obtained as it was, could possibly have any value to the “state and federal authorities” to whom it was given. I don’t know enough to answer that question. Fortunately, it’s secondary to this story, but I do wonder.
There’s a Wild West sort of feel to this sort of investigative reporting, on its face. It reminds me of the way reporters so often are portrayed in fiction, starting with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in the old “Superman” TV series. They were always taking it upon themselves to try to personally catch the bad guys, rather than simply report the story. Fortunately for them, Superman was always nearby to save them when the bad guys tied them up in an abandoned warehouse.
Of course, that’s only the way it looks to me from the outside. It could be that the folks at WIS who decided to go with this have very good answers to all of the questions I raise — I just can’t tell, as the reader.
There is one thing in the story that makes me feel better about reporting the contents of the recording — and I suspect is what made WIS management feel OK about the story — it’s that Danny Frazier, incredibly, “admitted to the recording.” Although I’m not clear on to what extent he did so, since he doesn’t admit to having said what the recording seems to show him saying. But let’s say he does confirm the legitimacy of the recording itself. This, of course, raises a bunch of other questions, such as: OK, if he knows the recording is legit, then doesn’t he know who was with him when he said those things? Does he not recognize the voice? In which case, tell me again why we’re not identifying the “undercover” guy…
Of course, to the casual reader, what we have here is a fascinating glimpse into the video poker bidness in 2012, and plenty of reasons to ask questions of Jake Knotts and Jimmy Metts. And that’s where Mr. Barr sticks to the book, asking those questions of each player and dutifully recording the answers. He got some great quotes:
The sheriff said he was too busy meeting and greeting voters to pay attention to who gave to his campaign, although the contributions were maximum contributions. “Very rarely do I look at the checks,” Metts said, “I do have access to who contributed to the campaign through the computer, but really and truly, I don’t go back and look at that.”
“If you held a shotgun to my head right now and told me you were going to pull the trigger unless I told you everybody who contributed to my campaign, you’d just have to kill me,” Metts said.
Several times during the interview, Metts denied any participation in or knowledge of any of the illegal video poker businesses in his county. “I know people say, in something like that breeds corruption, but I can tell you in no uncertain terms I am not a part of any Lexington County ring, I am not part of any illegal gambling. I don’t own. I don’t receive. I’m not involved. I’m not protecting anybody. As a matter of fact, [it’s] quite the opposite. I’ll put their [expletive] in jail.”…
Knotts admits Danny Frazier is a close friend whom he’s known for years, but denies any knowledge of protection for Frazier to continue to operate the illegal sweepstakes machines. “Do you have any involvement in what these tapes show that Danny Frazier may be involved in?” Barr asked. “None whatsoever,” Knotts replied.
“I’ve got contributions when I first ran, every time I’ve ever run and I don’t back away from it,” Knotts said of accepting campaign contributions from the video poker industry.
“If there’s any more money out there that any of those people want to send me, send it to me,” said Knotts. “I could take money from the devil and make it do God’s will.”
Bottom line, this new assertiveness by WIS, and by such others as the Free Times‘ Corey Hutchins, is bound to uncover a lot of fascinating stuff in our community going forward, however they go about it.
WIS is aggressively moving into the territory once held firmly by newspapers. For some time, of course, the text stories on TV websites have been more than mere come-ons for the video. And the networks, with their greater resources, have gone deeply into the realm of publishing the written word. But this sort of extended investigative report — 1,866 words, close to twice the length of one of my columns at The State — seems to go well beyond anything local television has attempted to do in the past.