SOUTH CAROLINA — On most days, you will find Will Folks, aka “Sic Willie”—South Carolina’s blogger provacateur, the prolific force behind FITSNews.com and that Nikki Haley story—where you’d least expect him: in a nice home on a quiet, well-kept street in Columbia, the state capital. He works out of a tidy office lined with vintage baseball cards and his kids’ art projects; the sign on his office door features a construction paper giraffe and reads, with complete innocence, “Jo’s Zoo.”
The cheekiest thing you’ll find in Folks’s office—not counting what lurks in his computer files—is a framed photograph of him standing between South Carolina’s former governor, Mark Sanford, and Haley, the current governor. A pre-lapsarian scandal sandwich; all smiles before the storms.
Political junkies may remember Folks from May 2010, when, two weeks before South Carolina’s gubernatorial primary, he announced on his blog that in 2007 he had had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with Haley, the Tea Party favorite for whom he had once done communications work (and whom he supported in the governor’s race).
Haley promptly denied the claim, calling it “categorically and totally false,” and Folks was accused of setting a new low in dirty politicking—breaking news of a scandal and starring in it—in the state best known for dirty politics. His web traffic spiked, but few people, particularly in the press, believed him—a fact Folks chalks up to a smear campaign unleashed against him.
In person, Folks exhibits a startling candor and openness. He volunteers that he had a well-deserved “reputation” while working as an aide to Sanford. “I drank too much, I hooked up with lots of girls,” he admits. (He also, at one point, pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge.) It’s a canny, charming approach that creates the impression that he is earnest and utterly credible. After spending the day with Folks—and hearing him press his account of the Haley ordeal repeatedly—I’m inclined to believe him. (And yes, my editors shivered when reading that last phrase.)
But that’s not really what this story is about. I’m here because, over the last five years, Folks has turned his one-man web operation into a must-read for Palmetto State politicos. (He also has a business partner, Nancy Mace—Folks notes that she is the first woman to graduate from The Citadel—who built the site and works as his promoter and occasional editor.) Folks adamantly resists the label of “reporter” or “journalist”; his site’s tagline—“Unfair. Imbalanced.”—is a boastful repudiation of professional journalistic norms. It’s a pose that allows him to push his own political views (fiscal conservatism, Ron Paul) and embrace his shock jock, frat-boy side (he frequently posts photographs of women in bikinis; not long into my visit, he opens up a picture that a woman has sent him displaying her shelf of cleavage).
Journalist or not, Folks is a consummate information broker, producing political scoops on a near daily basis. He’s been deemed South Carolina’s preeminent political blogger and tweeter by The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza. And while much of his content is inside baseball, Folks says his audience—previously limited to the state’s lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters, and political activists—has been expanding to citizens who are interested in his efforts to hold the state’s politicians, especially Haley, accountable from a fiscal conservative’s perspective. The site now draws 1.5 million visitors per month, he says, who come to see the handful of new stories he publishes per day.
But this bad-boy blogger is also a family man. When I first approached Folks about shadowing him for a day, he warned me he worked at home in an environment of “NON-STOP CHAOS.” He lives with his wife, Katrina, whom he started dating shortly after his claimed relationship with Haley ended, and their three kids—thirteen-week-old Phillippe, two-and-a-half-year-old Johanna, and eight-year-old August, Katrina’s son from an earlier marriage. Katrina shares Folks’s politics, for the most part, and reacts to his Sic Willie antics as if they were a sit-com couple, greeting his ribald commentary with affectionate, exasperated eyerolls.
Folks starts working at 7:30 each morning, shortly after dropping August off at school. When I showed up at his house around 8:30 Wednesday, he answered the door dressed in athletic clothes and with a source on speakerphone. The conversation would lead to a post later that day flagging the involvement of Robert Cahaly—a Haley advisor and local political consultant charged in connection with illegal robocalls made in November 2010—with the Southern Republican Leadership Council, which hosted Thursday night’s CNN debate in Charleston.
Folks has lots of sources, many cultivated in his days working as Sanford’s spokesman, a job the former governor offered him in 2001 after being impressed with an op-ed that Folks had written in the local paper about small businesses. He now receives dozens of tips per day—so many more than he can manage, he claims, that he will sometimes pass them on to other news organizations. (He and Mace are working on a business plan to expand the site’s staff.).
After finishing up the call about Cahaly, he’s quickly on to the next, this one with an upstate political activist who wants to talk about Mitt Romney’s apparent snub of a pro-life forum held in Greenville. Folks managed to fish out another story, though: pro-life organizations were asking members to refrain from public attacks of Romney, calculating that he will be the eventual Republican nominee.
His source asked not to be linked to the leak, and Folks readily agreed. (He is an enthusiastic user of anonymous sources, saying he gets more information than the average reporter because they trust he will protect their identities.) He then texted one of his two go-to “Bible thumpers” with the information and put out calls to staffers at the National Right to Life Committee. When, after a suitable interval, he hadn’t heard back, Folks churned out the story and plugged in what he called the “most satisfying line”: “Calls to the NRLC’s national office were not immediately returned.” He posted the item, “SC pro-lifers pulling punches against Romney,” beneath a picture of boxing gloves grabbed off of Shutterstock.com, a royalty-free images site.
A call came in from another source—a “smart guy” Folks knows who wanted him to plug a piece of school choice legislation and news that the bill had been backed by the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks. Folks was an easy target for this pitch—he brought up the state’s weak public schools and the importance of the “parent’s choice” issue in South Carolina with me several times during the day. More in the spirit of activist than journalist, he agreed to write up the post.
Soon, it was time to leave the home office. In a sign that Folks is taken seriously (and takes himself seriously), he had an interview with WNYC’s Anna Sale, a political reporter for It’s A Free Country, scheduled for later that morning. He threw on a blazer and a tie and we headed down to the State House. A small group of national press was leaving the scene, apparently having shown up for a Newt Gingrich press conference that Gingrich himself blew off.
Folks had had no idea Gingrich was going to be at the State House. In fact, though he has been writing about the “Palmetto State’s pivotal ‘First in the South’ presidential primary”—a phrase he says he’s sick of—on a daily basis, Folks shows surprisingly little interest in life on the campaign trail. He only tuned in to his first debate of the season on Monday night, and rated it as unwatchable. He says he hates cable news.
On camera, though, Folks morphs into as practiced a pundit as you’re likely to find. As the WNYC cameraman filmed him he stood with his arms folded, paused to let a noisy airplane fly overhead, and delivered his answers in a crisp, unstuttering patter. Though he sees a Romney win as inevitable, he used the opportunity to plug Ron Paul, who will be the first politician Folks has voted for in 20 years.
Standing around the State House, it’s clear Folks knows—and is friendly with—just about everyone who passes by. He stops to chat with the janitor, talks football with the lieutenant governor’s chief of staff, and congratulates another fellow for losing 75 pounds.
He also never misses a chance to make a point. As we walk back to his car, he points out a parking lot behind the State House, which, he says, figured prominently in the “inappropriate physical relationship.”
Not long after we returned to his home, Katrina arrived with their two youngest children. She put Phillippe to bed while Folks encouraged Johanna to eat her Chicken McNuggets. In a scene that did not quite live up to the promised “NON-STOP CHAOS,” Johanna, like her brother, soon went down for a nap, and Folks went back to work.
He punched out the Cahaly article and soon received a text that tipped him off that Major General James E. Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient, had retracted his endorsement of Rick Perry and was backing Newt Gingrich. Folks tweeted the news and called his source, who encouraged him to break the news on his blog before an official statement was released. Folks cranked out the post. Minutes later, he received a text from the same source asking him to disable comments on the post, to prevent Livingston’s detractors from calling him gay. Folks just shook his head at the request. “They leak the story but then ask this ”
Folks clearly relishes the politics of information. He likes having secrets—almost as much as he likes sharing them. He tells me a “secret,” then minutes later retells it to a source he has managed to get on the line. He dispenses tips and source connections freely—he offered story ideas to Sale during their interview, and during our time together he gave me Haley and Sanford’s cell phone numbers. At the same time, he is proud of his ability to protect information; he enjoys pointing out the mound of papers in his “burn pile.”
That logic of all information distribution as a sort of personal transaction surfaced in an odd exchange Wednesday afternoon. Folks had received an embargoed copy of the Democratic response to Nikki Haley’s State of the State address, which would be delivered at the State House Wednesday night. The text sparked a post idea, and Folks called up a Democratic Party source. After some back-and-forth on why Haley had chosen primary week for her speech, Folks asked if he could write about something in the response. Of course not, his contact said—it was embargoed. Folks pushed back, assuring the contact no one would know who had leaked him the text. Of course they would, the source said, because the document wasn’t a leak, but a release sent to a general press list.
I had to leave soon after, but not before Folks returned once more to the Haley scandal; while he says it’s a battle he “lost,” it’s clear it still consumes him. (“She gave us that pack-n-play for our kids! These lamps!’” he told me earlier, with Katrina nodding in agreement.)
He published three more posts later that day: one about a conservative blogger who had inexplicably drawn a Hitler moustache on a photograph of Rick Santorum, another about a flier that attacked Karen Santorum for having lived with an abortion doctor thirty years ago, and another commenting on the State of the State. Folks says he usually works into the night, though those hours are generally given to “issue consulting” and writing a book, which will chronicle his years in South Carolina politics.
No doubt, he was up early the next morning, working the phones, working his sources—maybe not a “real journalist,” but a force for them to reckon with.