A Further Perspective

Shame and Blame in Kentucky

How a Census worker's suicide became a witch hunt.

By 11.25.09

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Morgan Bowling called from Kentucky after Tuesday's press conference. "I'm really curious to see how the national news reports it," she said, referring to the conclusion of state and federal law enforcement officials that Bill Sparkman's death was a suicide.

Bowling is the 20-year-old news director of the Manchester Enterprise, a 6,500-circulation weekly that is the main source for local news in Clay County, Ky. For a few days in September, Bowling's hometown made national headlines after Sparkman's nude body was discovered Sept. 12 near a cemetery about 15 miles from Manchester in an area known locally as Red Bird.

Sparkman, a 51-year-old part-time Census worker and teacher's aide, had apparently been hanged, and Bowling reported the story on the front page of that week's Enterprise, with a quote from a Kentucky State Patrol spokesman: "The circumstances of the case right now are very sketchy."

The circumstances remained sketchy -- and the national news media paid scant attention to Sparkman's death -- until Sept. 23, when the Associated Press published a story that began: "The FBI is investigating whether anti-government sentiment led to the hanging death of a U.S. Census worker near a Kentucky cemetery. A law enforcement official told The Associated Press the word 'fed' was scrawled on the dead man's chest."

Attributed to a "law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case," the AP's reference to "anti-government sentiment" inspired sensational headlines (e.g., "Terror in Kentucky: Census Worker's Murder," CBS.com) and some of the wildest commentary since the invention of blogging.

In particular, liberals focused blame on Rep. Michelle Bachmann, who had expressed concerns about Census Bureau intrusions of privacy. Liberal blogger I think people in positions of power inciting hate and violence need to be held accountable.… Political hate-speech is just as dangerous as any other form of hate-speech."

Faiz Shakir of Think Progress accused Bachmann of fomenting "anger, fear, and vitriol" against Census workers, but liberal bloggers agreed that the Minnesota Republican had many co-conspirators, including Tea Party protesters and Rush Limbaugh. Andrew Sullivan blamed "Southern populist terrorism, whipped up by the GOP and its Fox News and talk radio cohorts." Rick Ungar contributed the memorable headline: "Send the Body to Glenn Beck."

The Left's certainty that someone -- everyone! -- in the conservative movement was to blame for Sparkman's demise clearly required a scapegoat. Finally Michelle Malkin confessed: "I killed the Kentucky Census worker -- along with every conservative in America."

That was apparently what Bill Sparkman wanted everyone to believe. Investigators said yesterday that evidence shows Sparkman wrote "fed" on his own chest, duct-taped his Census ID to his own neck, and hanged himself. Sparkman staged his death to look like murder, police said, in an apparent attempt to let his beneficiaries collect $600,000 in life-insurance benefits.

Sparkman evidently was willing to let his death be blamed on "anti-government sentiment" -- and on the people of Clay County. Or, as the Washington Post made sure to describe it, "impoverished Clay County."

Newspaper references to rural Appalachian poverty might evoke images of dilapidated cabins with tin roofs and dirt floors, full of barefoot hillbillies with corncob pipes. But those stereotypes bear no resemblance to the Clay County I visited in September.

Manchester is home to a regional campus of Eastern Kentucky University and, in general, resembles a lot of other small towns in America. On the day I arrived, the local Pizza Hut was crowded with Clay County High School cheerleaders holding a fund-raiser, and teenage boys were riding their skateboards on the shopping-center sidewalk near the Dollar General store.

There were no grizzled moonshiners and no right-wing militias, and no more "anti-government sentiment" than you'd expect, considering how the federal government has cracked down on local enterprises like coal mining and tobacco farming.

Thanks to an anonymous source in an Associated Press story and a flurry of speculation by bloggers, however, this quiet community was imagined to be a seething cauldron of hatred stoked by Fox News, talk radio and Republican politicians. Clay County's state Sen. Robert Stivers told the Lexington Herald-Leader that "many in the media owe the county an apology." As Morgan Bowling said Tuesday afternoon, at times it seemed as if pundits were trying to turn Bill Sparkman into a "sacrificial lamb for ObamaCare."

At the height of the national media glare, the Manchester Enterprise's young editor received an e-mail from New York: "What are you people, backwoods ignorant freaks?" the e-mailer wrote. "This crime is a reflection of all the residents of Clay County.… You are all disgusting pigs, and if one could level a curse at a community, then I curse the whole lot of you."

Morgan Bowling is only a few months into her journalism career, but she got a crash course about what can happen when irresponsible reporting leads to unfounded speculation. 

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.