WIS takes media convergence to a new level

wistv.com – Columbia, South Carolina |

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.

30 thoughts on “WIS takes media convergence to a new level

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Will WIS rehire David Stanton?

    I believe, but do not know and am too lazy to fire up a real computer to find out, that it is legal in SC to record any conversation to which the recording person is a party. It varies from state to state, and was part of the issue with the Linda Tripp recordings of phone calls with Monica Lewinsky: MD law differs from VA law.

    At any rate, it is moot, since Frazier acknowledged the conversation!

  2. tavis micklash

    “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.”

    Jake is smarter than Frazier. He would keep an arms length away from anything. So he can keep his hands clean.

    The weird thing about Jake is EVERYONE in Lexington County thinks he is dirty. He enjoys the reputation though and he is very good at blurring the line to avoid accountability. In this way his police background is one of his biggest assets.

    “And why are we concealing his identity? There may be a good reason, but I’d like to hear it.”

    I’m sure there are motives that are at play here. I have a vague feeling that its probably part of a turf war for the sweepstakes machines. On Magic Minutes Twitter they congratulated Jody on his story. Seems kind of weird from another sweepstakes company.

    “WIS is aggressively moving into the territory once held firmly by newspapers”

    I see this less as a WIS thing and more of a Jody Barr thing. He is one of my favorite follows for the news in Columbia. The station is just seeing his talent and wants further exposure for their asset, especially with the gap that is being opened as a result of Pay walls on the newspaper websites.

  3. Kathy

    Kathryn, several attorneys have advised me that it is indeed legal in SC to record a conversation if the recording person is a party.

    I’m just happy to see someone/anyone reputable doing some investigative reporting. Corey Hutchins should not be the only investigative reporter in Columbia.

  4. Steven Davis II

    So in short, if you had been in charge the story would not have run.

    WIS didn’t break this story, they grabbed it after the Free Times broke it.

  5. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – In SC, only one part needs to be aware of the recording. Do I think it’s unethical, yes but in SC someone can record a private conversation between two people and make it public information.

  6. Brad

    “So in short, if you had been in charge the story would not have run.”


    Go back and read it again. What I said was I would have had a lot of questions. If the questions had been answered completely satisfactorily, fine. Maybe they were. I can’t tell from reading the story.

    And Kathryn, one thing nags at me. You’re right, the most reassuring thing about the story is that it says Frazier “admitted to the recording.” I still don’t know what that means. It’s a slightly awkward construction. What did he say, exactly? “Yeah, that’s me?” Or something indirect, like, “I didn’t know he was recording that,” which could indeed be construed the way you put it — “acknowledged.”

    When you’re working a story like this, going through all the steps (which in this case would probably, but not necessarily, include getting it “lawyered”), you very much get into the realm of questioning what “is” is, and you want to get every word just right.

  7. Brad

    Being the editor on an investigative project is a major headache. The reporter gets all this adrenalin going, and is pumped, and is pushing for his story to run, while you’re the one who’s making sure he’s crossed all his Ts and dotted all his Is.

    And the whole time, you’re thinking about Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men.” He’d been cautious, way more cautious than Woodstein wanted him to me, and then he lets a story run — and it turns out to be demonstrably untrue, because unbeknownst to him the reporter got a little too cute with a source (the source thought he was supposed to say nothing and stay on the line if the story was wrong, and the reporter thought it meant it was RIGHT). And for a moment, the Post’s credibility was in the toilet. Of course, they were later vindicated, but they didn’t know that would happen at the time.

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    I believe people should stand by what they say, and as long as the recording is a full and fair representation of the conversation, I see nothing unethical about publicizing it.

    But then I comment under my real name.

  9. Barry

    Steven – the new FITS news info and recordings are unreal. Thanks for the link.

    If true, Frazier is – well I am not going to say it in mixed company.

    Looks like his wife is up to her neck in this too. (or is that his ex-wife) – LOL

  10. Steven Davis II

    “Go back and read it again.”

    I would read it closer if you’d quit writing novels for articles. It seems lately like every article is getting longer and longer with embedded text. As a manager, I’m sure you’ve said these words… “Get to the point”.

  11. Barry

    Kathryn- you should be.

    It’s an excellent investigation – and so far James Metts has returned thousands in campaign cash as of today

    and the Lexington Town Council has called an emergency meeting for Friday evening to deal with Frazier.

    I’m very impressed. Jody Barr has done an excellent job, researched this well, went out and got his hands dirty, and tried to talk to the players involved.

    That’s good work- and impressive.

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    Well,you are so wrong again, “Steven Davis II”!

    Brad’s writing and curating this blog while developing a new career after unfairly being ejected from his previously very successful and far more lucrative career, for one. His tolerance for pointless slams such as ones about the length of his writing on a blog forum that is provided free of charge and under no compulsion to us.

  13. Ralph Hightower

    I hope Jakie Knotts is not caught up in this, in order for him to remain a thorn in SC Governot Nikki Haley’s side.

    We don’t need a Nikki Haley acolyte in the General Assembly as “Hurricane” Katrina Shealey.

  14. miller

    Excellent work by WISTV.

    The State newspaper has a mixed record in its willingness to confront wrongdoing by government officials.

    In the 1980s, The State did nothing while Jim Holderman had his way with the students and finances of USC. Only the good work of The Greenville News and The Charlotte Obersvers brought him down.

    In 2005, The State did an excellent job exposing the negligence of DHEC in not informing the residents of a poor neighbor hood that their water was dangerously tainted with lead.

  15. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – Do you know the details of his “unfair” termination? Quit responding like a defense attorney… “poor, poor, innocent Brad”. The way Brad talks, if it wasn’t him it would have likely been 2 or 3 others under him because they used salaries as a determining reason for the cuts and Brad would have been the one delivering the news. 99% of people who get laid off are “unfairly ejected” from their job.

  16. tavis micklash

    I have been mulling over a theory for a while.

    Any chance this is just a set up by a rival sweepstakes company to cut out the vendor Frazier and others was working with with public embarassment?

    Its a wild theory but it could just be part of a turf battle.

  17. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – Do tell… you seem to know all the details of his termination. Brad stated he was terminated for financial reasons, but you’re saying otherwise.

  18. Brad

    Steven, what she just said is consistent. It was cost-cutting. Robert Ariail and I were among the highest-paid employees, so we were among the 40 laid off in that round.

    I was one of three vice-presidents let go in that round.

  19. Steven Davis II

    So where is what I said incorrect? Were you not let go for financial reasons? I never said you were let go for any other reason, but Kathryn wants to argue that I did.

  20. Brad

    I don’t think you were wrong. Neither was Kathryn. By saying I was “not terminated for cause,” she’s saying I was doing my job; I had not done something wrong in order to be fired. She considers that to be unfair. You apparently disagree with her on that point. Everyone has his or her opinion. I don’t see where anyone was wrong on any particular point.

  21. Steven Davis II

    What? Where is being laid off for financial reasons the same as saying you weren’t doing your job?

    Were you “fired” or “laid off”? You keep stating you were fired, which is a term used when there is typically “just cause”. Laid off is a term when a business bases the termination primarily for financial reasons. If you were fired and not for cause, wouldn’t you have a case for unlawful termination?

  22. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    “Fired” can mean either, although perhaps is more likely to mean for cause. “Laid off” sounds better, but you know what happened and you’re just picking.

    I am not impressed.

  23. Barry

    “If you were fired and not for cause, wouldn’t you have a case for unlawful termination?”

    Not in South Carolina.

    you can be fired or “laid off” for any reason – including the boss not liking the color of your shoe strings.

  24. Kathryn Fenner

    Yup, Barry. Without federal protections protecting people from being fired for racial, religious, gender, etc. reasons, or protecting whistleblowers, or a contract, employees in SC are otherwise at will.

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