by John StylesNews Weekly
The Media: A tale of two murders
, May 5, 2001
As just about everyone knows, almost three years ago, on October 12, 1998, a homosexual named Matthew Shepard died from a brutal beating in Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard was murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson who are each serving two consecutive life sentences for the crime.
Much less well-known is the case of 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising, who on September 26, 1999 was bound, gagged with underwear stuffed into his mouth, and sodomised before dying of suffocation.
The reason why there is a very low awareness of the death of Jesse Dirkhising while the slaying of Matthew Shepard is widely known, is the level of media coverage devoted to each event. A search of the Fairfax f2 database returned 34 stories about the Matthew Shepard case that ran in the Fairfax press locally. A search for stories about the death of Jesse Dirkhising returned none.
Writing in the liberal New Republic, senior editor Andrew Sullivan reported that the United States media monitor, Nexis, recorded 3,007 stories about Shepard's death in the month following his murder, but only 46 stories about Dirkhising's death in the month that followed his. Only one of the Dirkhising stories appeared in a major newspaper. Sullivan described the discrepancy as "staggering". And that was just the newspapers.
On America's TV networks the situation was much the same. The Washington Times quoted network executives who, in attempting to explain their lack of interest in the Dirkhising story, described it as just another crime story, or suggested that it was simply outranked by more important events.
The newspaper also quoted Paul McMasters, national ombudsman of the Freedom Forum: "I'm at a loss to explain why a story like this didn't get more national play," he said. "We don't know how many stories just like this one don't make it to the national news."
The point is that there have not been a lot of other cases like the Shepard and Dirkhising murders, a fact that tended to undermine those who defended the media's lack of interest in the Dirkhising murder on the basis that, unfortunately, such crimes against children are not uncommon. Andrew Sullivan found that both crimes were extremely rare.
Why, then, the huge discrepancy in the coverage of the Shepard and Dirkhising murders? According to Sullivan:
"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 ...
"The same politics lies behind the media's tendency to extensively cover white 'hate crimes' against blacks while ignoring black 'non-hate crimes' against whites. What we are seeing, I fear, is the logical consequence of the culture that hate-crime rhetoric promotes.
"Some deaths - if they affect a politically protected class - are worth more than others. Other deaths, those that do not fit a politically correct profile, are left to oblivion."
According to L. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Centre:
"You can bet that nearly every national media outlet hears the footsteps of a gay-left activist like Cathy Renna of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation".
In his weekly syndicated column, Bozell wrote that Renna told an early October 1999 gathering:
"One of the most important things you can do is have those tough conversations with journalists about when it is completely inappropriate to run to some radical group like the Family Research Council because of some misguided notions of 'balance'. We have to offer them some more moderate voices, or convince them that there is no other side to these issues ... We are now in the position of being able to say, we have the high ground, we have the facts, and we don't have to go one-on-one with these people."
The Shepard and Dirkhising cases, Bozell claimed, showed that Renna's censorious message is winning.
Bozell could be right. The mainstream media, in an attempt to justify its double standard, was perhaps at its most disingenuous when Jonathan Gregg of Time posted a defence on the news magazine's website:
"The most salient difference between the Shepard case and this one [Dirkhising's murder], however, is that while Shepard's murderers were driven to kill by hate, the boy's rape and death was a sex crime ... Matthew Shepard died not because of an all-too-common sex crime, but because of prejudice."
Brent Bozell described Gregg's argument as "balderdash", saying:
"Both Shepard and Dirkhising were victims of brutal crimes. Shepard was a gay victim; Dirkhising was victimised by two gay men. Gregg is saying that the victim of a 'hate crime' matters much more than someone who doesn't fit a politicised category."
Gregg claimed that because the Shepard case "reflected some of society's darkest influences - an acceptance of the persecution of gays - the media saw fit to hold the case up as an example".
Again, Bozell challenged:
"Just who is suggesting that the murder of a gay man is acceptable? Just who are these 'darkest influences' of society he cites? Where has Gregg found the conservative articles or pamphlets that support beating up gay people? Which conservatives wrote an editorial suggesting that Shepard's killers should go unpunished, or serve a lesser sentence?"
The Time journalist's summation was most revealing. Gregg wrote:
"The reason the Dirkhising story received so little play is because it offered no lessons. Shepard's murder touches on a host of complex and timely issues: intolerance, society's attitude towards gays and the pressure to conform, the use of violence as a means of confronting one's demons. 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."
L. Brent Bozell interpreted:
"Translation: the Shepard story deserved coverage not because of the murder, but because of what it could do for the gay Left. The Dirkhising story was buried not because of the boy's death, but because it offered nothing but damage to the gay Left. The media doesn't impartially serve the public. It just serves its political buddies."