- END OF CHASE: Where Gwatney's killer died.
After the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, national media reports showed joyous outbursts from people all over the world, including singing and dancing in the streets of Kenya.
Of course, here in Arkansas, McCain won handily and people who cast their vote for the top of the GOP ticket weren't so joyous. Their concerns were worth reporting, but also worth more context than was often provided.
Local news reports did little to quell the irrational fears being expressed on talk radio and even in their own stories about what might happen under an Obama presidency. On Nov. 6, KARK, Ch. 4, broadcast a story that gave a soap box to evangelicals and conservatives who weren't sure whether Obama “cares about the issues that many Arkansans care about.” The story was riddled with hearsay and conservative talking points and contained no voice from the “other side,” nor was there any effort on the part of the reporter, Pete Thompson, to set the record straight.
Chief among the evangelicals' concerns was whether Obama would preserve good relations with Israel. Cornerstone Bible Fellowship Church pastor Mike Haigh said, “To the extent he has anything to do with weakening our relations with Israel … I think there will be severe consequences.”
The broadcast moved on to other topics without providing Obama's position on Israel. You can find it in about two seconds, still, on Obama's campaign website. It reads, “Barack Obama and Joe Biden strongly support the U.S.-Israel relationship, believe that our first and incontrovertible commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel, America's strongest ally in the Middle East.” Now, Ch. 4 isn't supposed to shill for Obama, nor should it present his words as absolute fact, but a mention, at least, was warranted.
Back on camera, Thompson said that elsewhere there were more “dramatic reactions.” He said one Texas gun shop owner did $100,000 worth of business in one day because, as the owner said, “people are concerned about losing their gun rights.” The anchors agreed, saying they had heard those same concerns locally. Nowhere in the friendly, post-package banter did anyone suggest that fears of an Obama administration taking away anybody's guns were unwarranted. Again, a two-second trip to Obama's campaign page will tell you what he thinks about gun rights. “Barack Obama … respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms.”
Rob Heverling, news director at KARK, said Ch. 4 assumed people had already made up their minds and the story was a just a snapshot of what people were feeling.
“We all agreed during our morning editorial meetings that there was a lot of angst and fear among evangelicals about our next president. Pete's story was a brief reflection of what many conservative Christians are thinking.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran an article Nov. 11 about the rise in gun sales “fueled by anxiety and uncertainty over what limits might be placed on future gun purchases in the wake of last week's election that gave the Democratic Party control over the White House and Congress.” The article provided a laundry list of quotes from gun dealers who are reaping the benefits. The almost 900-word story devoted 53 words to Darinda Sharpe, the communications director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, saying she couldn't think of a politician ever taking anyone's gun away.
When asked if he felt reports of this nature added to the hysteria the story reported, Frank Fellone, deputy editor of the Democrat-Gazette, said he doesn't think so.
“If you're going to ask me about the power of the press, then I'll tell you, over the last 35 years or so, I've been amazed at how often the press has no power — or how the perception of its influence far exceeds its actual influence. I think what we were doing was simply taking a snap-shot of the phenomenon as we found it at that moment in Arkansas.”
When news broke that both the State Police and the Little Rock Police Department were set to release more information on the killing of former Democratic Party Chair Bill Gwatney, every news outlet in town started digging through the documents to find out more. As it turns out, there wasn't much there. Police did not find a motive in the now-closed case.
Part of the document dump from the State Police was a DVD showing the police car chase of Timothy Dale Johnson, Gwatney's killer, and his eventual shooting by police. We at the Times decided to cut the least gruesome, but arguably the most jarring clip, into a YouTube video and link to it from our blog. We wondered what other news stations would do.
The KATV, Ch. 7, 6 p.m. broadcast started off with a cold open of bullets blazing out of the passenger side of Johnson's window. KARK, Ch. 4, did not show video of the actual shooting. KTHV, Ch. 11, expressly said they had decided not to show the video, but made it available on their web site.
KTHV news director Chuck Maulden said decisions about what's acceptable are made on a case-by-case basis.
“We always try to balance seeking the truth with minimizing harm,” Maulden said. “In other words, it's our job as journalists to report the truth as fully as possible. But at the same time, we have to minimize the harm caused by the truth. That's why, for example, we don't release the names of rape victims.”
Randy Dixon, news director at KATV, said 7's news management team reviewed the video and decided it was acceptable for their audience.