In a media environment where the public seems to prefer ideology, opinion, speculation and outrage over fact and reason, Bill Sparkman seemed to think he could find plenty of suckers.
He was right.
Authorities said Tuesday that their investigations had determined the part-time Clay County census worker committed suicide in an elaborate ruse to cash in two life insurance policies worth $600,000.
Sparkman wanted to make it look as if he was murdered by an anti-government zealot, authorities said. So he stripped naked, hanged himself from a tree, taped his Census badge to his head and wrote "FED" across his chest with a black marker.
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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 wasn't just media people who jumped to conclusions.
In an op-ed piece published Oct. 19 in the Herald-Leader, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, John Gage, wrote:
"While the investigation into Sparkman's death is not yet complete, I don't believe it's a coincidence that this occurred after an unprecedented wave of hate speech by public officials, media figures and leaders of extremist organizations, some aimed directly at the census and some targeting President Barack Obama and the government in general."
Sparkman suckered them all. Police weren't so easily fooled, but they had to spend a lot of time and taxpayers' money to make sure the media swirl would be silenced.
These tempests seem to happen frequently now, and it's easy to see why.
Bloggers and talk show hosts — who aren't journalists, but advocates and entertainers unencumbered by journalistic ethics — know that the more outrageous their comments, the more attention they'll get.
Even public officials are getting in on the act, saying things they know aren't true in the hope of gaining political advantage.
They all do it because the public doesn't hold them accountable for their words. And they'll keep doing it until the public does.
Freedom of speech comes with responsibility. Words have consequences, because crazy people will act on them — and have.
One recent example was Jim David Adkisson, who walked into a Unitarian Church in Knoxville last year with a shotgun, killing two and wounding several others. He left behind a handwritten list of grievances that read like a right-wing talk-radio script.
Hateful and irresponsible speech comes from the political left as well as the right.
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.