Hamilton County commissioners criticized media coverage of Sheriff Jim Hammond Thursday over comments Hammond made regarding public anxiety and President Barack Obama's race.
Thursday's edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press was printed with an above-the-fold headline that read "Sheriff: Black president fuels insecurity." Commissioner Greg Beck took issue when he saw the headline and said he immediately sought out Hammond for an explanation before Thursday's agenda session.
Beck told commissioners Hammond was misrepresented.
"I talked to the sheriff about that, and he said it wasn't really like that," Beck, who is black, said. "And the paper seems to be putting something out there that adds to the insanity of people feeling insecure because we have an African-American president."
Beck went on to suggest the paper's reporting would lead readers astray and that it was his duty to make sure facts were straight so that citizens were "not taken further down the road of ignorance."
"I'm going to do my best to help steer people in the right direction," he said. "People are just like sheep without a shepherd. They can be told anything. They can be told the end of the world is going to come Dec. 21, 2012, and the whole nation will think that the end of the world is coming. And that's just how gullible our citizens are."
In the paper's story, Hammond was quoted commenting about national reactions to recent violence and proposed changes to gun laws. Hammond was quoted saying he had gauged "fear and uncertainty" when speaking to locals, partially from a reaction to Obama being the first black president.
"Part of it [is] because the first black president," Hammond said. "I mean, we all see that. We may dance around it, but a lot people are fearful of the, oh, this is going to ruin the country."
Before his mention of Obama, Hammond alluded to the "graying of America," increases in citizen gun ownership and recent violence in schools as also contributing to the public anxiety—which he said was "the most intense" he'd encountered during his career in law enforcement. In addition, Hammond said the "general eroding of the moral, spiritual and legal balance that we've seen" and political instability across the globe were also contributing factors.
A clip of his comments is posted on the Times Free Press website.
Speaking to the commission, Hammond said that "healing" in the racial and political communities was important to him. He added that he was irritated by the way he was portrayed by the paper—particularly by the way the report's headline was worded.
"What you see in those headlines, it was not Sheriff Jim Hammond," Hammond said. "It was the editorial staff taking my words and making their own headlines."
Several commissioners were sympathetic to Hammond.
Commissioner Warren Mackey, who is black, suggested the Times Free Press had sensationalized the story, giving it a provocative headline and above-the-fold coverage to sell more copies.
"We all know in public life we make comments, and the newspaper, in an attempt to sell papers, they oftentimes take those comments and take them out of context," Mackey said.
Commissioner Fred Skillern said commissioners and elected officials should expect to be misrepresented by the press.
"I think it's already happened to about half of us, and they'll get the rest of us sooner or later," Skillern said, speaking to Hammond. "Sheriff, I know where you're coming from cause I've been there."
Commission Chairman Larry Henry agreed.
"You took the words right out of my mouth," he said to Skillern. "If it hasn't happened to you on this panel, it will, sooner or later. What I learned to do a long time ago is read between the lines."
Alison Gerber, managing editor for the Times Free Press, said in an emailed statement that the paper stood by their reporting.
"We stand by the story," Gerber said. "Mr. Beck may not agree with our decision to write about Mr. Hammond's comments, but I feel the newspaper should not shy away from issues that may be uncomfortable for some people to talk about. Sheriff Hammond's comment[s] were not taken out of context."
The paper's report also included comment from the Southern Policy Law Center, which cited a rise in anti-government groups since Obama took office in 2009. An SPLC spokeswoman attributed the rise not only to the president's race but also to changes in culture and demographics and a continually struggling economy.
Updated @ 8:16 p.m. on 2/28/13 to make a factual correction: An earlier version of this story said Hammond was presumably answering a question in his comments to the paper. In fact, he was commenting on work with his foundation when he brought up how he’s seen more fear in the past three years.