In September 1999, Jesse Dirkhising, a 13-year-old boy, was bound, gagged, raped and murdered by two of his neighbors. Two men. Two gay men. What many people found remarkable about the story was that it never really became a story at all. In the month following Dirkhising’s brutal murder, Nexis recorded some 46 stories about it — most of which were commentaries about the lack of stories.
Contrast that with an earlier murder. When a young man in Wyoming was brutally beaten and left for dead on a fence in 1998, his story was front-page news and talk show fodder for months. In the month following his murder, some 3,007 stories could be found on Nexis about it.
Why the disparity in coverage? Well, because this young man to whom I refer is, of course, Matthew Shepard. The difference between Shepard and Dirkhising is that Shepard was a gay man murdered by two straight men, whereas Dirkhising was a straight boy (by most accounts) murdered by two gay men.
To many on the right, the disparity in coverage between these two cases epitomizes what they’ve been screaming from the rooftops for years: the media are controlled by liberals who only report news which reinforces or promotes liberal causes. Shepard, a gay man who fell victim to homophobia and intolerance, was deemed newsworthy. Dirkhising, a teenage boy who belonged to no protected class and whose murder could have embarrassed a protected class, was not.
If you think about this bias charge objectively for a moment, you’ll find that it’s true. Shepard’s death was only newsworthy if you believe homophobia and anti-gay sentiment are national problems which need to be addressed.
So does this mean that the media are biased? Let me answer that question with another: What isn’t biased?
I think we often overlook the fact that journalists, liberal and conservative alike, are people — people who operate with their own set of values and ideologies which are impossible to cast aside when reporting on a story.
Dozens of murders and sexual assaults occur each day in this country, making it logistically impossible for one newspaper or news organization to report them all. Thus, choices have to be made (perhaps even subconsciously) as to what (or who) is newsworthy and what is not. Sometimes these choices are fairly benign — think JonBenet Ramsey. Other times they are not — think the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.
So if the media’s saturation coverage of Shepard’s murder were an example of their liberal bias, so too would any more than the most perfunctory coverage of the Dirkhising case serve as an example of a conservative bias in the media. Why? Because conservatives were not reporting on the Dirkhising case in an effort to give equal time to every murder in America. Rather, they were reporting on the Dirkhising case in an effort to disparage and demonize gay people.
Dirkhising’s murder was only a national story if you believe that homosexuality and pedophilia go hand-in-hand. The story merits further discussion only if you believe there is something innate about homosexuality which makes gay people more prone to pedophilia.
His death did become a conservative cause celebre; however, when conservatives adopted these views to further their own anti-gay agenda (similar, in all fairness, to the way in which gay-advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign shamefully exploited Shepard’s death to push for gay people’s inclusion into federal hate-crimes laws).
One of the resident nut jobs at the ultraconservative Jewish World Review wrote that “the defense of gay pedophilia has metastasized deep and far into the national conscience.” According to this point of view, the media’s refusal to report the Dirkhising case stems from their tacit acceptance of gay pedophilia, which is, of course, along with promiscuous sex and rampant drug use, an integral part of the “homosexual lifestyle.”
My only problem with conservative reporting of the story — and continued reporting of every crime committed by a gay person — is that it is was framed as some lofty defense of journalistic objectivity and integrity. I fail to see any fundamental difference between reporting on a story with the intention of promoting the idea that pedophilia is a common part of the “homosexual lifestyle” and reporting on a story with the intention of engendering support for inclusion of gay people into federal hate-crimes laws. I would have no problem opening up my newspaper to read either one of these, but I would not find one any more or less objective than the other.
What logically follows from conservative criticism of the media is that the conservative journalists hurling the accusations are capable of the objectivity which eludes their liberal colleagues. Ironically, their condemnations of the mainstream media’s liberalism become most vociferous when it comes to the media’s coverage of homosexuality, an issue where conservative bias is as clear as the liberal bias they take so much pleasure in castigating.
Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in German and political science.