COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA — In May 2010, Will Folks, the onetime spokesman for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, sparked a sex scandal as juicy as his former boss’s trip to the Appalachian Trail (by way of Buenos Aires). That month, Folks claimed he had had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with State Representative Nikki Haley–then running in a competitive Republican primary for the gubernatorial nomination, now South Carolina’s governor. The affair took place, Folks said, when he had worked for Haley as a political consultant three years earlier. Haley’s camp denied it.
Who got the scoop? Well, Folks did.
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Folks is both a practicing political consultant and the founding editor of FITSNews.com, a conservative-libertarian website covering politics in the Palmetto State. Folks broke the alleged affair on the site in order to preempt pending mainstream reports. The Haley story–and a number of follow-ups criticizing Haley and her camp for their denials–is the site’s biggest to date. And, full of scandal, blunt language, and shouts for attention, it is also one of the site’s most telling.
A rabble-rousing mashup of blog commentary, breaking news, and pictures of “hotties,” FITSNews is the embodiment of its founding editor–a controversial political irritant and obsessive–in clickable, linkable form. Fixatedly covering and commenting on South Carolina state politics, the site describes itself as written by “hardcore fiscal conservatives” with foreign policy views that “lean toward blowing people off the face of the earth.” Folks writes 95 percent of the content, has a cartoon picture of himself–in cool black shades–as its logo and chose for his motto the phrase “unfair, imbalanced.” “Our goal is to advance a fiscally, socially libertarian perspective,” Folks told CJR. “I’m not trying to hide that fact that I’m trying to convince people.”
This directness has earned him a consistent one million hits a month, he claims, a figure only legacy websites like The State can match among news sites in the state.
Fittingly, FITSNews began as an accident in 2006. Folks was trying to comment on one of the many critical web posts about him–the year before he had pled guilty to domestic violence for shoving his fiancé –and clicked on the wrong link. He was led to a “create your own blog” website. “It looked pretty simple, so I did it,” he recalls. He chose for the name an acronym of a lyric from the George Michael song Freedom–“Faith in the sound.”
Folks began blogging about state politics, drawing on his experience as a consultant and insider–as well as his fat rolodex–to comment and report on rumors and maneuverings around the statehouse. He soon picked up an audience, switched from a Blogger platform to the latest WordPress, and now spends 70 percent of his working time on the site. “It started out as a once-a-week column that in the course of the last two years or so has grown and morphed into something different,” says Folks. “What it’s morphed into is less clear.”
The AP has made an attempt to define it. Jim Davenport wrote in a report about the Haley affair that Folks’s project is “a conservative site that features occasionally insightful commentary, thinly sourced stories of state political intrigue and photos of women in bikinis.” Around the same time, The New York Times offered this: FITNEWS was “a jarring mix of political scoops–he was the first to break the news that the Sanfords had been seeing a marriage counselor before Mr. Sanford’s affair became public–and photos of scantily clad women accompanied by off-color remarks.” Posts refer to Mr. Folks as a ‘bad boy’ and annually cite the state’s ‘hottest newsbabe.'” The descriptions are apt. Folks uses his site to comment and report on everything from the GOP primary to Haley’s poll numbers (once a supporter, he says he would now actively support a primary challenger to the governor). And then there’s his regularly updated “Top 5 hotties list,” an “exclusive club that includes Charlize Theron (35), Angelina Jolie (35), Halle Berry (44) and Salma Hayek (44).”
“We say things very bluntly,” says Folks, whose website is more often than not critical of anyone who appears on it (fully clothed). “While it may be unorthodox for a news outlet to call leaders ass-clowns and things like that, if they deserve it, then I’m going to call them that.” But it’s not all fun and name-calling; FITS breaks stories. Folks was first to break news of one of Jon Huntsman Jr.’s big South Carolina hires for the GOP presidential primary. And, in a testament to his place in South Carolina politics, in 2008 he sat down with GOP primary candidates Mike Huckabee, Rudolph Giuliani, and John McCain (twice).
His readers, he says, are predominantly “limited government types,” and “we have a very loyal following of what some people would call Tea Party activists.” Still, Palmetto State politicos of all stripes will check in with the site regularly. “We’ve got a large audience of government employees who are probably less thrilled with what we write. But they read it because they’ve got to be aware of what’s happening–to make sure we’re not attacking their agency on a particular day.”
The clicks have given him “a very modest amount of revenue,” a few thousand dollars a month, he says, exclusively from display advertising. “We’re hopeful that the same upward trend we’ve seen in regards to readership will result in an upward trend in ad revenue.”
If it all sounds like an uncivil way to make a dime, Folks, unsurprisingly, doesn’t care. “Part of the problem with this country in my view is that we have such a watered-down, sanitized debate,” he says. The calls for civility that followed the Arizona shooting that hospitalized Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords particularly galls.
“The very next day, one of my congressmen in South Carolina said in response that we needed to rethink the parameters of the first amendment,” says Folks. “My attitude is that if that is the attitude of my leaders then I better speak up while I’ve got the chance.”