It doesn’t take much to get the news media’s attention these days. On the national level, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” was immediately hyped by the national media – even though the comment was clearly understood contextually by anyone with a 90 or better IQ.
Hyping incidental events isn’t limited to the national fourth estate – it happens right here at home. We ought to expect better. We ought to demand better.
A case in point was the late September news story carried by at least one local television station, the lead of which suggested that a local town clerk “may be” in trouble with the law. And only a few short sentences later, the story asserted that no one really knows if any laws were actually broken.
So why run the story?
That’s the question Benton Town Clerk Stephanie Sullivant asked me when we discussed what was clearly a small town politics issue, of which our subject local television station was clearly unaware.
As Sullivant explained … She shares a residence with a Benton police officer, who was out of town on September 28, 2012. As luck would have it, that was the day the radar in Benton police cars was being calibrated – and this officer’s car was parked at the shared residence.
Sullivant said she received a call from Benton Police Chief Charles Pilkington requesting that she drive the vehicle to town hall – which she did. Assistant Police Chief Carl Bates was waiting for the vehicle and immediately drove it to the radar calibration location.
The local news media had been alerted to this alleged infraction and at least one station responded and spoke with some residents who appeared to be concerned about the event.
Those concerned citizens just happen to be Gene Hillen, candidate for Benton Police Chief in the running against Pilkington – and Ken Shifflet, candidate for Benton Mayor. Unfortunately, Benton Mayor Wayne Cathcart was out of town – or the incident might have been straightened out immediately.
But, it was not until October 2, 2012, that the television news folks ran a short piece quoting the Police Chief Pilkington as saying Sullivant hadn’t broken any laws or ordinances – and that was the end of it.
Unless, of course, you are Ms. Sullivant. She was mortified by this irresponsible news coverage – saying, “My child’s elementary school teacher saw that.”
And Sullivant really had a hard time balancing the evidence that showed this non-event to be more important to the television station than a town boil advisory she’s sent to the same station a week earlier – and which didn’t get aired at the proper time.
No wonder so many people have a jaundiced view of the media.
But according to Sullivant, there’s an avenue to redemption in this case: The news media can cover Benton Police Chief candidate Gene Hillen’s criminal court trial on Friday, October 26 (today). Hillen is alleged to have committed payroll fraud in his former capacity as Benton’s assistant police chief.
News coverage of that event is likely to be far more compelling and of interest to voters that the non-story of the “the town clerk and the police car.”