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Eblen: Media, talking heads bought into Sparkman’s ruse

November 25, 2009

On Tuesday came the revelation that part-time U.S. Census worker Bill Sparkman committed suicide, but made his death appear to be a homicide. Kentucky State Police released the details of their investigation, and said Sparkman orchestrated his death to appear to be a homicide to preserve payments of several large life insurance policies.

Lexington Herald-Leader columnist tom Eblen says the media and TV talking heads were more than willing to buy into the scenario that Sparkman’s death suggested, and pegged the death on meth-makers and moonshiners or anti-government zealots despite evidence to suggest foul play at their hands.

From Eblen’s column

News reports of Sparkman’s death in September were quickly seized upon by the national media’s talking heads. Not many facts were available, but that didn’t matter.

To left-wing bloggers and talk show hosts, this seemed like the perfect example of what can happen when right-wing bloggers and talk show hosts — not to mention public officials — preach anti-government rhetoric.

Even some reporters, who should have known better, used speculation about Sparkman’s death as an opportunity to exploit other themes and stereotypes. If it wasn’t anti-government crazies who killed Sparkman, maybe it was drug dealers or moonshiners.

The headline of the Sunday Herald in Scotland said: “U.S. Official killed in Kentucky — the land of Meth and Moonshine.” ABC News did a report about drugs in Appalachia that began by saying Sparkman’s death had “put renewed focus” on the subject, even though it cited no facts to support that claim.

It’s hard to dispute the conclusions many jumped to based upon the sketchy details releases after Sparkman’s body was found with the word “Fed” written on his chest and his U.S. Census workers badge taped to his head.

Unfortunately, Sparkman and many were all too willing and eager to play into the perpetual stereotypes about Kentucky, eastern Kentucky in particular. But that still doesn’t justify the rampant speculation that followed Sparkman’s death.

For Eblen, the problem doesn’t lie just with the media, but with the audience it increasingly caters to.

From his column –

Until the public rediscovers the difference between news and entertainment, journalism and advocacy, people like Bill Sparkman will continue playing the talking heads for fools.

But the talking heads are not nearly as foolish as the people on both sides of the political spectrum who listen to their shows, read their blogs, buy their books and make them rich.

The American public will get the kind of media it demands. At the moment, that isn’t much.

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