Journalism and the Palmetto State of play

Union County, South Carolina was barely on the map in 1993. There was no easy way to get there by interstate highway. It wasn’t even the place drivers ended up by accident. It was one of those places that traverlers only went on purpose. By October 1994, nearly everyone in America had heard of the rural county in the middle of nowhere.

The Susan Smith story put Union County on the map. The woman’s lie held everybody breathless. The claim that a black man had carjacked Smith’s vehicle and run off with her children set the county on edge and handcuffed the nation’s attention. Smith held fast to her story. It seemed nothing could break her. Then Sheriff Howard Wells took Smith’s hand and prayed with her.

It was a simple little cop trick he played. He told a a white lie that set her off her tracks. Moments later, as Wells would tell a jury, Smith asked for his service weapon so she could kill herself. The young blonde woman confessed and Wells became, for the moment, the best lawman on this side of the Mississippi.

Fourteen years can change a lot. Smith is in prison for life. Wells is no longer the sheriff. He is now, with three other man, under federal indictment.

The case itself takes a long time to explain. It involves lying to federal investigators, kickbacks, county government corruption, and, on the sexiest of angles, using a county office as a stash house for cocaine and prescription drugs. The best reporting on the story thus far is coming from the Spartanburg Hearld-Journal. Check out this explainer to get a feel for the depth and importance of the story.

Of course, someone has to come in and save the day. Someone has to bring order to the chaos. Someone has a job to do. And that brings me to a picture that pretty much defines South Carolina as it stands today.


That’s a photo taken by Gerry Pate in yesterday’s SHJ story from top reporter Jason Spencer in which we learn that Governor Mark Sanford (yes, thatMark Sanford) headed up to Union County to appoint and swear in a new county clerk to replace the one who resigned while under State Law Enforcement Division investigation.

And people wonder why I never bothered to leave the Palmetto State.

It was the SHJ’s Spencer who tipped me to a fantastic L.A. Times article on the state I’ve called home for a decade. Here’s the CliffsNotes version:

  • State Agriculture Commissioner busted for cockfighting ring
  • State Treasurer busted on cocaine charges
  • State Education head resigning after allegations she authored anonymous erotic internet fiction
  • Governor busted with Argentine mistress and now under ethics investigation for alleged misuse of state airplanes
  • U.S. Representative calls President of the United States a liar
  • Two Low Country GOP officials use Jewish stereotypes in op-ed piece
  • And, yeah, the whole Union County thing
  • It’s the latter of these that makes reporters like Spencer (who you can follow on Twitter here) such an asset to people like me–voracious news consumers who need real reporting, regular follow-ups, and subjects that are more than just “talk around the water cooler” material. Spencer doesn’t spend his day looking for stories that will make people buy his paper on one day. He looks for stories that will make people buy his paper every day.

    Over the past 15 years since the Susan Smith story, it’s been hard not to notice a shift in the people who manage journalists. While the business of TV news and newspapers has always been about making money, it’s becoming more and more common to see news managers and producers shrug off what used to be the first order of the day: journalism. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear the top dogs say without a hint of regret, “It’s a business. We’re here to make money.”

    That’s where the line is and why there are so many complaints about the state of journalism today. The good news managers are the ones who find ways to appease the corporate overlords while still respecting the tenets of journalism. Those people still exist, but they are becoming increasingly hard to find. My friend CJ (with whom, admittedly, I have many a disagreement) is one of them. He is one of the people who can remain true to his craft while still respecting he has to make money for his company. There is nothing wrong with either side of the coin, but it takes a pretty talented person to not go the easy route and cheapen the news by turning into a televised online forum where people post pictures of their kids and dogs.

    When I first heard Elise Hu and Matt Stiles were getting out of the business, I chalked it up to two more people who weren’t up to fighting the losing battle in which I surrendered five years ago. Then I heard where they were going, and I couldn’t be more proud to know them.

    Hu and Stiles are among a small group of Texas journalists who are starting up the non-profit Texas Tribune, a fresh media outlet with the stated goal of being “‘A non-profit, nonpartisan public media organization” with the mission “promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government, and other matters of statewide concern.”

    It’s one of those “wow…just wow” concepts that makes me remember why I believed in journalism in the first place.

    To point out the Texas Tribune as something fantastic is not to say that all media outlets should follow the example and go non-profit. However, it should provide inspiration for all journalists to find a way to work on stories that matter, a way to make people watch when their kid is not on TV, and a way to look at themselves in the mirror and think, “I did something good today.”

    South Carolina is a great place to be a journalist and people who manage journalists in this state would do well to remember they have a lot of extraordinary opportunities to do good work here. There is no lack of material, and just because it’s harder and doesn’t show results in the daily ratings books, it doesn’t mean that people don’t hunger for it and won’t pay for it if you do it right.

    As the L.A. Times story reminded us, in 1860 an attorney named James Petigru called South Carolina, “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

    And that’s a place where real journalism should thrive.

    Brad Willis

    Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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    6 Responses

    1. Mrs. Otis says:

      I’m ALMOST going to give you an AMEN on this piece. The one point I take issue with is the idea that harder news doesn’t show results in daily ratings books. If you remember, back when we were actually reporting the news, we won, and won big almost every single day, every single newscast. When the “news” product here and across the country slowly turns toward crappola, there is a gradual erosion in those daily ratings numbers. Why should I waste 30 minutes of my life I’ll never get back when I could be doing something more important? When people know they’ll find something RELEVANT, NEW AND INTERESTING, they might make a newscast “appointment viewing,” instead of my-kid’s-on-TV viewing…much like I make Big Bang Theory appointment viewing (said sort of jokingly).

      Viewers are not as stupid as consultants want us all to believe. You can polish the crap up to look real purty, but at the end of the day, it’s still crap and a complete waste of their time.

      To think you can save money (and help the bottom line) by continually cutting staff and resources, by doing more with less, and by slinging hash just to fill the bottomless pit of time is not just doing your viewers a disservice; it’s also bad business. If you make a quality product, people will buy it. Make a piece of crap, and they might buy it one time, but they’re sure not coming back for more.

      …stepping off my soapbox, taking off my outraged journalist cap, and putting back on my stay-at-home-mommy-puked-on-pants…

      Oh, and yay Hu and Stiles!

    2. G-Rob says:

      I’m going to agree with your wife. Hard news is actually the single best ratings magnet there is and the public is starving for ORIGINAL ENTERPRISE hard news.

      The REAL problem is that hard news takes a great deal of time, talent and man(or woman)power.

      Who has any of that?

    3. CJ says:

      Hard news wins. Every time. Our research shows it. Our ratings show it. What do they want? Breaking news and severe weather. They want to know what happened in their community that day.

      Our morning show abandoned the long-held tradition of Today Show style interviews. We deliver news. What happened overnight? What’s happening right now? What’s going to happen today that affects my life.

      Every morning and afternoon, I ask my reports to bring me a story with two things: urgency and relevance. Feature report became an afterthought the day I arrived. Some people confuse good storytelling with fluffy stories. It’s just not the case. You can have great storytelling on a hard news story.

      We win in the ratings. We’re a strong #1 getting stronger.

      On the other hand, our competiting is selling McDonald’s coffee from the set in their morning show. Here it is. It’s sick and disgusting and it drags us all down.

    4. CJ says:

      Oh, and thanks for the compliment. We may disagree politically, but we’re obviously on the same page when it comes to what journalism should be!

    5. elise says:

      Big thank you for y’all’s continued friendship and support… we’re excited… only a week until launch! As they say, stay tuned.

    1. October 28, 2009

      […] many of my closest friends in the past few weeks. So I’m really sorry, and I miss you. Also, a huge thank you to the friends who have already supported or are planning to support The Tribune in one way or […]