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Census worker's death: end of another conspiracy theory

Census worker Bill Sparkman's death in September set off a rush of speculation and commentary about right-wing extremism. On Tuesday, police ruled the death a suicide.

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Both liberal and more mainstream bloggers tried to blame conservative media figures such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

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"This is the kind of violent event that emerges from a culture of paranoia and unsubstantiated attacks. Personalities like Glenn Beck have irresponsibly accused the government of running FEMA concentration camps, and constantly stoke the fear of 'the Feds' taking over," wrote Allison Kilkenny at the Huffington Post.

"[T]he most worrying possibility – that this is Southern populist terrorism, whipped up by the GOP and its Fox and talk radio cohorts – remains real," Andrew Sullivan, a blogger for the Atlantic, wrote in late September, adding, "We'll see."

However, Mr. Sullivan Tuesday pushed back against claims he had said Sparkman was murdered by "neo-confederate thugs," writing, "I clearly suspected foul play and believed it wasn't suicide, I drew no firm conclusions about the actual perpetrators of this act. In every post, I made sure readers knew that the investigation was ongoing and we did not yet know the full facts. And at every opportunity, this blog linked to stories pushing back against the idea that this was a murder."

Not that there aren't legitimate threats from America's extremist fringes, says Mr. Walker, the Reason editor. But "panicky centrists" haven't been able to draw a direct link between talk radio rhetoric and actual violence.

"[B]y giving serious attention to theories associated with the fringe right ... [they argue] Glenn Beck and other broadcasters are validating the grievances of potential killers, giving them the impression that they aren't alone," wrote Walker in October.

One problem with this assumption, Walker writes, is that "it ignores the autonomy of people on the fringe.... You can't reduce media effects to simple push-pull reactions."

See also:

Police: Census worker Bill Sparkman staged his suicide

Why police are keeping quiet on Census worker Sparkman death

Grisly hanging of Census worker: an antigovernment act?

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