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Mainstream media are advocates when they cover gay issues

April 16, 2001

For nearly 18 months now, the news media have been trying to brush off complaints about their non-coverage 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 of 1999. Both accused killers are homosexual men.At first, The Associated Press did not put the story on the national wire. But The Washington Times ran a Page One report. 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. 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.

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 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, editor of National Journal, 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 personal 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 embarassing 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 Dirkhising coverage have often been linked to the Shepard murder, as if some kind of competition were under way. 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 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 has come from haters. But a lot has come from people who sense the advocacy and the double standard: If Jesse Dirkhising had been a gay youngster tortured and killed by straight men, whether for “hate-crime” reasons or just for fun, the story would have gone national in a heartbeat. The Internet furor is a howl of complaint about how the newsroom culture operates.

Because of Andrew Sullivan’s April 2 column in The New Republic, I think the news business will 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 Dirkising? 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 anti-gay prejudice.”

This is exactly what various big-time media have been denying for a year. In a chat last week with me, 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 an eqully frank response from the media?

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