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Jewish World Review April 10, 2001 / 17 Nissan, 5761

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

"Mainstream" media are advocates when they cover gays -- FOR nearly 18 months now, the news media have been trying to brush off complaints about their noncoverage of the Jesse Dirkhising murder, but the issue won't go away. Dirkhising is the 13-year-old Arkansas boy who was drugged, tied to a bed, raped, tortured, and suffocated in September 1999. Both accused killers are homosexual men.

The Associated Press at first did not put the news on the national wire. But the Washington Times ran a Page 1 story. It contrasted the enormous coverage of the Matthew Shepard torture-murder with the media silence about a somewhat similar case in which the alleged perpetrators were gay. Then Brent Bozell's Media Research Center and Bill O'Reilly of Fox's The O'Reilly Factor weighed in, raising the issue of media bias. "Nobody wants to say anything negative about homosexuals," said a research center spokesman.

The story was soon all over talk radio and the Internet but nearly invisible in mainstream media. Even the conviction of the first accused rapist-killer last month barely got reported. Since the murder, not one story has appeared in the New York Times. The first one in USA Today appeared a month ago. CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN have been silent too. The Washington Post produced two little squibs on the case. But on the Internet, it's a big story. This is bad news for the news media: a story told everywhere except in mainstream newspapers and magazines and on TV.

Standout murders. Big-time media seem exasperated by these complaints. They know that editors don't sit around comparing murder coverage for fairness. Some stories catch on nationally, while similar ones don't. Besides, the media can't cover all grisly sex crimes around the country. True enough, but aren't child murders often singled out for national attention? The 1994 rape-murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey was a huge national story. The 1993 abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas was even bigger–about 3,000 news stories in the first 14 months, according to a computer search. The horrendous details of what was done to Jesse Dirkhising might have made the story jump out for similar attention. But they didn't. Why not?

In a memorable column, Michael Kelly said that "most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates into which they plug each day's events." In other words, there are conventional story lines in the newsroom culture that provide ready-made narrative structures. One of these templates is that newsworthy violence is the kind perpetrated by the strong against the weak (gays, women, and minorities). This is why reporters feel comfortable tapping out stories that fit the template but uneasy about reporting things like black-on-white hate crime or the rate of female violence against their male partners. So there is truth to the charge that nobody wants to print stories embarrassing to gays. But it has little to do with gay power or media conspiracy. It's about underdog status, the do-good newsroom ethic, and those darned templates.

Unfortunately, complaints about the Dirkhising coverage have often been linked to the Shepard murder, as if some kind of competition were underway. The Shepard case was legitimately a huge story, in part because it had the enormous symbolic power of both a lynching and a crucifixion. But there is something odd about the standard media defense: The Shepard story was news in a way that the Dirkhising story wasn't because it "prompted debate on hate crimes and the degree to which there is still intolerance of gay people in this country," according to a Washington Post editor. This comes pretty close to advocacy. Hate-crime legislation was in some trouble at the time, and gays were fighting to get included under existing laws. So the rapid spread of the Shepard story helped the cause, and the Post statement can be read as what it probably really is: a gentle endorsement of support for the inclusion of gays under hate-crime laws. Some of the explosion of anger on the Internet and talk radio came from haters. But a lot came from people who sensed the double standard: If Jesse Dirkhising had been a gay youngster tortured and killed by straight men, the story would have gone national in a heartbeat. The Internet furor is an unanswered howl of complaint about the newsroom culture.

Because of Andrew Sullivan's April 2 column in the New Republic, I think the news business will now have to respond. Sullivan is one of our best-known and important political writers. He is gay. Why the obsession with Shepard and the indifference to Dirkhising? Sullivan wrote this: "The answer is politics. The Shepard case was hyped for political reasons: to build support for inclusion of homosexuals in a federal hate-crimes law. The Dirkhising case was ignored for political reasons: squeamishness about reporting a story that could feed antigay prejudice." This is exactly what various big-time media have been denying for a year. In a chat with me last week, Sullivan mentioned that "the New York Times would rather go out of business than report the Dirkhising story." A courageous and honest man. How about a similarly frank response from the media?

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts : Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


04/03/01: Why don't conservatives care about saving the planet?
03/27/01: Ivy League therapy
03/20/01: Hold that conscience
03/12/01: The no-speech culture
03/05/01: The 'transgendered' boom
02/27/01: Lovely monsters
02/20/01: When perfectly reasonable principles are carried too far
02/13/01: Bill and Hill are pills
02/06/01: Partner hopping
01/30/01: Sensitivity police
01/22/01: Found in the White House dumpster on Jan. 20, 2001
01/16/01: New slogan belies what the Army really is
01/08/01: The black dissent
01/03/01: The year's best quips on life, politics – and golf
12/19/00: Supreme confusion
12/11/00: Racial rhetoric conveniently ignores election facts
12/05/00: Savage fantasy
11/27/00: Victims of the year get the recognition they deserve
11/20/00: It's a chad, chad, chad, chad world
11/13/00: The election rhetoric is running much too high
11/07/00: How yesterday's hero becomes tomorrow's heel
10/30/00: Would Bush's Supreme Court picks make a difference?
10/24/00: Yankees, go home!
10/17/00: Un-American activity?
10/10/00: A tempest in an ink pot
10/03/00: The Al Gore quiz
09/26/00: The sleeper effect
09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

Copyright ©2001 Universal Press Syndicate  Click here for more John Leo