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The Politics of News

May 23, 2007

Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23, were out on a dinner date in Knoxville, Tenn., on January 6, when they were carjacked, kidnapped, raped, tortured, sexually mutilated, and killed.

Despite the press’s taste for dramatic crimes, even crimes that do not involve missing blondes in Aruba, the story got almost no publicity. Conservative bloggers, who are beginning to buzz about the case, think they know why: the couple was white and the five suspects arrested in the case are black.

The mainstream press does not like to carry stories of black mayhem and white victims. First, there is the fear of stirring up more racism among Klansmen and neo-Nazis, as the Knoxville case has started to do. More importantly, the newsroom culture tends to view black-on-white crimes as responses to black oppression, and therefore not worth reporting. Whereas similar white-on-black crime is oppression itself, and thus crucially important to put before readers and viewers.

This classic newsroom double standard pops up again and again. A recent example is the “second rape case in Durham.” In this eerie reversal of the Duke lacrosse story, a girl was allegedly raped in the bathroom of a Duke fraternity house during a party. North Carolina’s News & Observer said the suspect being sought was in “his late teens or early 20s, about 6 foot 1 and wearing a do-rag, a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans.” However, the story failed to mention that the suspect was black, the alleged victim is white, and the fraternity, initially unnamed, is African-American.

When the suspect is not immediately apprehended, the public is usually told by police and the press to look out for someone fitting a particular description. But it does little good if reporters tell us that the man being sought has a small mole on the side of his neck and parts his hair in the middle if we don’t know what color he is. Newsroom squeamishness about even mentioning blacks, gays, and women as perpetrators is quite high.

Later the News & Observer mentioned the racial angle, as it had to. But the national press wasn’t interested. Once it became clear that the suspect was black, the story lost any chance of journalistic traction. Even the strangeness of a rape report so closely following the other Duke lacrosse story attracted no attention.

The classic double standard crime story is the 1999 death of Jesse Dirkhising, a 13-year-old Arkansas boy who was drugged, tied to a bed, raped, tortured, and killed by two homosexual men. The big-time press was exasperated by complaints that, unlike the Matthew Shepard story, the murder of the Dirkhising boy virtually had no coverage outside of Arkansas.

Obviously the press can’t cover all grisly sex crimes around the country. But aren’t sex murderers of children often singled out for national attention? The 1994 murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka became a large-scale story. The 1993 abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas was even bigger — there were more than 3,000 news stories in 14 months of Klaas’s murder, according to a computer search. The horrendous details of the Dirkhising death should have made the story jump out for national attention. But why did it not?

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 press 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.

A commentary on came even closer to an open admission that crime coverage is often shaped by newsroom advocacy. The commentary, by Jonathan Gregg, said Shepard’s murder touched on complex and timely issues, whereas “Jesse Dirkhising’s death gives us nothing except the depravity of two sick men. There is no lesson here, no moral of tolerance, no hope to be gleaned in the punishment of the perpetrators.” Or, in plain English, Shepard’s death advanced a cause we care about, and the Dirkhising death didn’t.

The non-coverage of Dirkhising’s case and the implication that murders by gays aren’t as newsworthy as murders by straights, led to an explosion of anger on the Internet and talk radio. Some of this 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.

Now the press is making the Dirkhising mistake again in the Knoxville case. It may have the same result: the story will spread anyway thanks to the Internet. Before the press start up again about “angry white males,” let’s notice that the blogger assault on the press’s failure in the Knoxville case is being led by Michelle Malkin, who is Asian-American, and LaShawn Barber, who is black.

Before long, more news consumers will conclude that even crime news is in effect being politicized. Is this any way to protect an industry in trouble?

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