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Years ago, in a piece for another newspaper, I encouraged the Johnston County Board of Education to pick Todd Sutton for the vacancy created when Larry Strickland won election to the N.C. House of Representatives. The board could have appointed anyone, but I favored Mr. Sutton because he had run in that year’s school board election, finishing fourth in a race for three seats, if memory serves. I thought a candidate who had run and nearly won deserved the seat more than someone who had sat on the sidelines of that year’s election. I hope Mr. Sutton doesn’t make me regret that endorsement.
Earlier this month, Mr. Sutton, now the school board’s chairman, held a news conference to address a fellow board member’s suspicions of wrongdoing in the schools. He read a statement rebutting most of the allegations but also acknowledged that he had seen disturbing evidence of sexual harassment in the schools. All in all, Mr. Sutton handled himself well.
But he began his news conference by attacking one of this county’s media outlets. Here’s part of what he had to say about jocoreport.com, which has published that fellow board member’s allegations at length: “First of all, let me state that I think it’s the responsibility of every media outlet here today to report the facts and to do so after having properly vetted and confirmed the information that you have been ... given. (That) has not been the case for one particular media outlet in the past several months.”
With that opening salvo, Mr. Sutton was blaming the messenger for the many black eyes the school board has suffered over the past year. But blaming the messenger is what politicians do when they want to deflect criticism away from themselves. It’s the first line of defense for people incapable of mounting a real defense when they find themselves in the sometimes harsh spotlight of media attention.
But Mr. Sutton knows full well that jocoreport.com didn’t deliver a message that it wrote. First, it published a column that school board member Ronald Johnson penned. Next, it aired a video interview with Mr. Johnson in which he expanded on his column. In short, the message was and is Mr. Johnson’s, not jocoreport.com’s.
If Mr. Sutton has a problem, it’s with his fellow board member. Mr. Johnson is the one who’s making allegations of wrongdoing, not jocoreport.com. And Mr. Johnson is the one who’s keeping evidence of wrongdoing close to his vest, not jocoreport.com. It’s also true that Mr. Sutton could have done what Mr. Johnson did: Pen a column or sit for an interview with the media outlet of his choosing. I suspect jocoreport.com would have obliged him, and I know this newspaper would have.
Instead, Mr. Sutton chose to stand outside the Johnston County Courthouse and shoot the messenger for delivering someone else’s message. In case the school board chairman hasn’t been paying attention, that’s what Donald Trump does when he reads a story that casts him in an unflattering light. Indeed, that’s what politicians of all persuasions do — blame the messenger when they don’t like the message.
But Americans, Johnstonians included, aren’t pining for politicians. They are looking for leaders who will confront and solve their problems. And as Mr. Sutton knows full well, the Johnston County schools have their fair share of problems, including diminished trust and confidence in the school system’s elected leaders and central administration.
I think Mr. Sutton is committed to regaining that trust and confidence so that Johnstonians will believe school leaders when they say their finances are stable and that they have a plan for helping more children succeed in the classroom. But he can’t do that if his strategy is to first blame the media for what ails the county’s public schools.
Scott Bolejack is editor of the Johnstonian News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.