Media Bias, Tea Party Extremists Killing Federal Workers Edition

Think back to the fall of 2009: The Yankees were headed toward a win in the World Series, Obamacare was struggling along, and the nascent Tea Party's brand of anti-government extremism was getting Census workers lynched in Kentucky.

Bill Sparkman, a part-time U.S. Census employee, was found hanged from a tree in Kentucky, naked, with the word "FED" scrawled on his chest in magic marker. The horrible crime was part of a wave of anti-government rhetoric that, it seemed, inspired the dreadful act. Poor Bill Sparkman reaped what the Tea Party sowed.

MSNBC was all over the story: Rachel Maddow covered it heavily Sept. 23rd through the 25th; Ed Schultz mentioned it on the 24th and 28th; and Countdown talked it up on the 25th. NBC News did four profiles on the viciously, brutally murdered part-time Census worker in September—a Nightly News hit on the 24th; a pair of NBC Today stories on the 24th and 25th; and a NBC Saturday Today story on the 26th.

Maddow took the lead, saying on the 25th that "we have brand new details which do not all dampen the worry that Bill Sparkman's death was what we first worry appeared to be, violence against a federal employee, because he was a federal employee." The day before, she described the area of Kentucky he was killed in as "dangerous for him to do Census fieldwork door-to-door" and reported that we were "learning more from area residents about what kind of risks Mr. Sparkman might have been exposed to going door-to-door."

Andrew Sullivan, mortal enemy of those dreadful Tea Party extremists, wrote on the 26th that "the one thing we know for certain now in the case of the Kentucky lynching" was it was "no suicide." Sullivan continued: "the most worrying possibility—that this is Southern populist terrorism, whipped up by the GOP and its Fox and talk radio cohorts—remains real."

Now, three-and-a-half years later, Rich Schaprio has revealed the shocking truth in the pages of the Atlantic: It was a suicide all along.

The investigators called a press conference for November 24. At 2 p.m. that day, in a conference room at the state-police lab in Frankfort, Captain Lisa Rudzinski ticked off the evidence pointing to suicide. Wilson, standing ramrod-straight, looked on. Rudzinski took her time while discussing the most combustible element of the case, the three letters scrawled on Sparkman’s chest. With a black marker, she drew each letter on a dry-erase board, from the bottom up, emphasizing the bead at the top of each one. Describing Sparkman’s final moments, Rudzinski didn’t mince words. She pointed out that his body was in contact with the ground almost to his knees. To have survived, Rudzinski said, "all Mr. Sparkman had to do at any time was stand up."

The case proved to be far less sinister than the early theories amplified by the press. There were no antigovernment zealots. No murderous drug traffickers. No bloodthirsty backwoodsmen.

Of course, he's not really revealing anything. It has been known for some time that Sparkman committed suicide. As was noted in the intro to Schapiro's piece, "Sparkman's death briefly made headlines: to some, it seemed to implicate our polarized politics; to others, a region long known for its insularity. And then the case disappeared from national view."

And boy did it disappear! In November, Maddow briefly updated her audience that "two anonymous officials tell the AP that they are increasingly less inclined to believe that Sparkman's death was a homicide." She still seemed slightly incredulous, immediately adding: "Although Mr. Sparkman's body was found naked and blindfolded with his census worker ID duct-taped to his head and neck, his mouth gagged and his hands and feet bound, the AP sources now say they believe he may have committed suicide."

Maddow would never definitively report that Sparkman's death was a suicide. That was left to Howard Dean, filling in for Miss Maddow on November 24: "Kentucky State Police today concluded that his death was a suicide," Dean reported.

NBC News failed to cover the story after it was revealed that Sparkman committed suicide.

Andrew Sullivan—absent his vim and vigor and certainty that this was NO SUICIDE, friends, no sir, couldn't be—briefly quoted from the Kentucky State Police Report on November 24th. There would be no apology.

When it comes to media bias, I try not to get too worked up. It's bound to happen in an industry so monolithically dominated by Democrats and liberals. But I couldn't help but feel the rage boil up as I read Schapiro's (excellent*) piece this morning. Just remember: If you ask to see a cabinet nominee's speeches or financial records, you're a McCarthyite. But if you accuse a political movement of inspiring murder based on no evidence whatsoever, well, no big deal.

(Thanks to Brent Scher for dredging the above news reports up.)

*Note: There will be some who argue "What media bias!? A liberal magazine just did a long piece discussing how it was suicide!" To which I would reply "Which do you think had more impact on public discourse: the news reports viewed by millions in which the Tea Party was essentially accused of inciting domestic terrorism, or the (again, excellent) extremely long article published 3.5 years after the fact?"