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Journalism with a big 'J'
by Chuck Gordon

Kim Deese Holt '88 and her WSOC-TV team dug deep to uncover election fraud.

If you want a reminder of what a difference a free press can make, look no further than Kim Deese Holt ’88, Joe Bruno and the rest of the WSOC-TV newsroom.

The week after Thanksgiving in 2018, Bruno received a series of tips regarding North Carolina’s Ninth District election for the U.S. House of Representatives. News had already broken that the Board of Elections was refusing to certify Mark Harris as the winner, and that it had something to do with absentee ballots. But there was little insight into why the certification hadn’t occurred.

While sitting in a pizza joint waiting on his fiancee, Bruno, only 26 years old at the time, got a credible tip that a Bladen County political operative named McRae Dowless was involved. He looked into it. The next day, a source gave Bruno leaked affidavits from voters alleging irregularities with absentee voting in Bladen County.

Kim Holt in front of the WSOC-TV headquarters

Bruno took what he had to Holt, manager of investigations and special projects at WSOC, and Mike Oliveira, the station’s news director, looking to do a little old-school journalism. Bruno wanted to travel to Bladen County to see what he could uncover for himself.

Bladen County is nearly three hours away and isn’t even in WSOC’s coverage area, but Holt and Oliveira knew a potentially game-changing scoop when they saw one.

“I didn’t get any pushback,” Bruno says. “They were like, ‘All right. Let’s do this.’”

The dominoes started falling almost from the moment Bruno, producer Mike Stolp and photographer Corey Gensler stepped out of the car in a housing complex in Bladenboro. The first person they interviewed – Stacy Holcomb, who happened to be walking by in the complex’s parking lot – confirmed that someone in a Mark Harris T-shirt had collected his absentee ballot.

More people started talking to Bruno, on camera. Ginger Eason told Bruno that she was paid up to $100 a week to collect absentee ballots from Bladen residents voting in the midterm elections. A few more knocks produced a corroborator.

“We knew going down there that this was looking like it was legit,” Holt says. “But when people came out on their front porches and talked to him? We said, ‘This is a bigger deal than we thought.’ There were just layers and layers.”

At a time of year when the news cycle was pivoting toward holiday-shopping revenues and feel-good stories about toy drives, WSOC took a gamble and it paid off. The adrenaline took over, and Bruno and his team worked tirelessly all week uncovering bits, pieces and chunks of what turned out to be the biggest election scandal in North Carolina in years.

They knocked on doors, pored over absentee ballots, and painstakingly checked out every tip that came in.

The results of the election were decertified, and a new election was held. Dowless is awaiting trial on a number of state and federal charges, and 11 people have been indicted. And Holt, Bruno and the team won just about every award imaginable, including the Alfred I. duPont Award, the pinnacle of broadcast journalism.

“Sometimes in television news there are exciting moments and there are big interviews and there are police chases and fires and the big stories,” Holt says. “But this felt like the Big J, journalism with a capital J.”

Pursuing a lead

Bladen was one of the first counties established in North Carolina, in 1734. It initially stretched from its present position near the coast out to the colony’s western border (including the land Wingate University sits on today), but over time other counties were carved out of it, starting with Anson in 1750. Today, Bladen is a geographically large but sparsely populated rural area. So rural that Bruno and his team had to stay in nearby Robeson County, because Bladen County has few hotels. So rural that it’s often overlooked.

Perhaps that’s why it was targeted for a ballot-harvesting operation. About half of Bladen County is in the Ninth District, making it a small player in a district that includes southern Mecklenburg County and Union County. But with Republican Mark Harris beating Democrat Dan McCready by a mere 900 votes out of more than 280,000 cast, Bruno was quickly learning that even the smallest of players might have played an outsized role in an important national election.

The details: On Nov. 27, 2018, three weeks after the midterm elections, the Associated Press reported that the state Board of Elections had not certified Harris’s victory over McCready. It ultimately came out that 61 percent of absentee ballots in Bladen County were cast for Harris, a Republican, though only 16 percent of absentee voters were registered Republicans.

Armed with those facts and the affidavits, Bruno approached management about making a trip to Bladen County.

“There was some discussion among the managers,” Holt says, “and the ultimate decision was from our news director. He did not flinch for a moment. He said, ‘OK, let’s go down there.’”

The team’s supposed two-day exploratory trip turned into a five-day deep dive into Bladen County politics, and it was well worth it. Bruno got people to admit, on camera, that they had harvested ballots and turned them over to Dowless. The admissions were astonishing, and they essentially made the story.

The reason why ultimately so many people want to get into this business is to be part of something like this, where you are really doing true journalism. You’re exposing things that, were it not for your work, never would have been exposed.

Although an investigation was already underway, WSOC’s dogged reporting provided a real public service.

“I think we moved up the timeline,” Bruno says. “The people of the ninth district, all they knew was that their election was held up because of irregularities. They didn’t know what those irregularities were. Our reporting gave those residents and voters an idea of why they didn’t have a congressman at that time.”

In Charlotte, Holt was busy doing the type of tedious, time-consuming journalism that often breaks big stories. Absentee ballots must be returned by the voter or by a near relative, and the person returning it must sign the ballot as well. Holt started digging through the actual ballots and noting the signatures. She discovered that many of the names were the same, including one that turned up 40 times. Using LexisNexis, she looked up the addresses of signees and gave them to Bruno, who then put as many of them on camera as he could.

“Our research director and I were in front of the computer doing old-school math: OK, person A is the co-signer on how many of these ballots? And person B has signed how many ballots?” Holt says. “Really just putting together what became a critical part of it. Certain names started to emerge over time. This person signed as a witness on dozens of ballots. This other person signed as a witness on dozens more ballots. And that’s just not normal.”

Holt spoke with Bruno daily, encouraging him to keep digging. “Joe ended up getting these amazing interviews with people who clearly were part of this absentee-ballot operation but had no clue that what they were doing was illegal,” she says. “They were just doing it to make some extra money.”

Pretty soon, federal investigators were on the scene, and the story gained national interest. WSOC broke story after story that first week, and Bruno became a minor celebrity. In addition to filing stories for the midday, evening and late-night newscasts (and sometimes tweaking them for the morning shows), he tweeted interesting tidbits throughout the day and gave interviews to national publications such as the Washington Post and CNN. Producers of multiple shows on MSNBC had to fight over who got to have Bruno as a guest on any particular night.

Meanwhile, Holt and the rest of the crew tracked down leads and followed up on tips from their Charlotte newsroom.

“The reason why ultimately so many people want to get into this business is to be part of something like this, where you are really doing true journalism,” Holt says. “You’re going and knocking on doors. You're digging through documents. And you’re exposing things that, were it not for your work, never would have been exposed. That was really exciting.”

From Weekly Triangle to Emmy Awards

In high school, all Holt ever wanted to do was to be on the radio. She wanted so badly to work in radio that she told the owners of WMAP, an AM station in Monroe, that she would “scrub toilets to be able to work at this station.”

Her enthusiasm paid off. As a high-school senior, Holt started off with a five-hour shift every Sunday morning, spinning gospel favorites accompanied by sermons delivered on cassette tape by local churches.

She soon graduated to presenting a Saturday-afternoon beach-music show. She also graduated from Sun Valley High School and enrolled at Wingate College, where her love of broadcasting only grew, this time in the direction of TV. Working in the College’s TV studio, Holt developed a love of directing, enjoying the technical aspects of stitching together a TV show.

I didn’t see it at the time, but being editor of The Triangle set me up perfectly for being a newscast producer. It translated beautifully.

Her passion for one particular aspect of creating a compelling TV show – writing – was fostered at Wingate. Holt worked on the staff of the student newspaper, The Weekly Triangle, for three years, the last as editor-in-chief. Even now, although she’s never been an on-air reporter, she’ll go out and do interviews and write stories for WSOC’s anchors to read on air, just to scratch that writing itch.

“I’ve thought about over the years, what was my biggest takeaway from Wingate? Wingate is where I developed my love for writing,” Holt says. “I love working with reporters to hone their writing skills and to work with them specifically on scripts and just make them as good as they can be. ‘Let’s rework this phrase here.’ ‘Maybe this works better going into this soundbite.’ ‘What if we rearrange this part or turn it into a standup?’

“I love that part of it, because I love writing, and that came from Wingate, from Dr. Sylvia Little(-Sweat), from Rachel Walker. They really, really taught me about the power of the word, the power of the written word, the power of the spoken word. I take it all back to Wingate for that.”

Kim Holt works on the Weekly Triangle

The evening of her graduation from Wingate in May of 1988, Holt started as a weekend production assistant at WCNC, the NBC affiliate in Charlotte. Six months later she became the producer of the weekend newscasts. Three months after that, producer of the weekday 11 p.m. newscast. Holt ultimately moved on to similar jobs in Houston, Los Angeles and Cleveland.

Figuring out the puzzle every night – Which story do we lead with? Which one do we cut in order to fit in this breaking news? – was like a drug. “When you’re in the booth or the control room during a newscast, it’s a dynamic time,” she says. “It’s like every nerve in your body is on fire. It’s a real high-adrenaline situation.”

Helming The Weekly Triangle, where “ultimately everything is your responsibility,” trained Holt well for her career in TV news. She had initially wanted to be a news director, but a friend and fellow Wingate graduate, Karen Baucom Clontz ’86, convinced Holt that she would be perfect for producing (deciding what content goes into the newscast), rather than directing (overseeing the technical aspects of the newscast).

“I didn’t see it at the time, but being editor of The Triangle set me up perfectly for being a newscast producer,” Holt says. “It translated beautifully.”

After giving birth to her first child, Holt moved back to Charlotte and took a job as a special-projects producer at WSOC. She’s worked her way up to her current role, where she oversees all special projects, such as programs on domestic violence, bullying, mental health and affordable housing, and investigations, such as the “Action 9” and “9 Investigates” franchises and, she says, “anything that could get us sued.” Along the way she’s won five Emmy Awards.

“She is just such an amazing and talented producer,” Bruno says. “She’s had such an accomplished career that anytime I can make her proud, I feel like I’m doing good work.”

He got that chance when the story of a lifetime came alone.

Changing history

Although the election-scandal story was big, it wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk in terms of TV news.

“There are a lot of stories we’d love to do, but sometimes it just doesn’t turn out to be a great TV story, because it’s a newspaper story,” Holt says. “It’s facts, it’s documents, it’s not visual. It’s not that we don’t do it, but it’s not going to be compelling visual content.”

Election stories tend to work in that vein. There are only so many camera angles you can get showing voters lining up at the polls, only so many times you can cut to a shot of the city-limits sign or the Board of Elections headquarters. And you’re certainly not likely to catch anyone in the act of committing fraud.

DuPont Award

Bruno managed to make the narrative compelling, explaining each piece in detail while emphasizing why it mattered to the viewer.

“I showed how the sausage was made,” he says. “We aired everything. We had video of us while we were sitting on the park bench going through absentee ballots. We recorded me knocking on everybody’s door. We recorded people yelling at us to go away. We just walked everybody through the process in how we told the story.”

All the while, the team leaned on Holt back in Charlotte. They looked at her as something of a coach, a mentor who had been through stories such as these before and had a discerning eye for news.

Of course, this story was beyond the typical accidents and city-council stories that often populate local news broadcasts, and Holt knew it. She and Oliveira made sure to give the story room to breathe.

In a typical 30-minute news broadcast, a big story might get a minute and 15 seconds of air time, maybe a minute and a half. In order to tell a complicated story such as the Ninth District absentee-ballot scandal clearly, and especially to explain why it mattered to viewers, Holt allowed Bruno’s pieces to run past three minutes in length.

“That’s just another example of how Kim was incredibly flexible and willing to throw away the playbook in order to make sure that this story was told properly,” Bruno says.

It helped that Holt could trust Bruno to handle the story properly.

“Some reporters require a lot of coaching,” Holt says. “Joe does not. He’s one of those old-school, grassroots journalists who gets it.”

Bruno’s Ninth District reports led most WSOC newscasts for weeks, and the story remains a big one to this day, with Dowless making his first appearance in federal court in May of 2020.

WSOC’s investigation had a huge effect on North Carolina politics, shining a light on voter fraud that affected an election. Perhaps most important, the reports educated viewers and held officials accountable. Ultimately, the election results were decertified and a new election was held. The Ninth District went nine months without representation in Congress, and Harris chose not to run in the special election. Dan Bishop defeated Harris’s opponent, McCready, in the special election and was sworn in in September of 2019.

The overarching story reinforced some journalistic practices Holt says her team holds dear.

“It reminded us of the importance of really vetting out tips and taking every tip seriously,” she says. “As much as people like to criticize the news, this came out because of television news, because of a dogged reporter who said, ‘I’m going to look into this tip.’

“I’m just so glad in this case we took it and ran with it the way that we did, because it ended up really changing history for the state of North Carolina.”