WASHINGTON (BP)–There were no nationally televised candlelight vigils for Jesse Dirkhising. No Hollywood celebrities mourned the passing of the 13-year-old Arkansas boy.
The New York Times hasn’t reported how Jesse died of asphyxiation in 1999 after prosecutors say he was bound, gagged and sodomized by a homosexual couple. And the seventh-grader’s death has not caused powerful Washington activists to lobby for new federal laws to punish such crimes.
While the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming provoked a blizzard of media coverage about the death of the homosexual college student, the Dirkhising case is just “a local crime story,” one TV network spokesman explains.
Joshua Macabe Brown, one of two men accused of killing Jesse, was convicted March 22 of rape and first-degree murder in a trial that began March 13.
Through the afternoon of March 22, Brown’s weeklong trial produced a combined total of zero stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN.
Conservatives comparing coverage of the Shepard and Dirkhising cases, which both involve homosexuality; have scolded the media for ignoring Jesse’s murder. But the disparity in reporting on the two murders has provoked comment even from homosexual critics.
“This discrepancy isn’t just real. It’s staggering,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in a column in the April 2 issue of the liberal New Republic magazine.
Mr. Sullivan, who is homosexual, cited Nexis database statistics showing 3,007 media stories about the Shepard killing in the month after the Wyoming murder, but just 46 stories about Dirkhising’s murder in the month after the Arkansas boy’s death.
Outside of Arkansas, the Tulsa World and the Memphis Commercial Appeal were the only large newspapers to carry daily Associated Press coverage of Brown’s trial. The Washington Times has carried the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s reports on the trial in Bentonville, Ark.
The only TV network to report on the trial has been Fox News Channel, where “O’Reilly Factor” host Bill O’Reilly featured a segment on the Dirkhising case titled “Is There a Double Standard in Coverage of Hate Crimes?” on his March 19 broadcast.
By contrast, the Shepard murder made front-page news — and the cover of Time magazine — in October 1998. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt were among the politicians who appeared with Hollywood stars like Ellen Degeneres at a candlelight vigil on Capitol Hill to mourn Mr. Shepard’s death and demand new hate crimes laws to protect homosexuals.
TV networks featured footage of a weeping Miss DeGeneres — whose televised “coming out” as a lesbian made headlines in 1997 — telling the crowd at the Capitol Hill vigil, “I’m begging heterosexuals to see this as a wake-up call to help us end the hate. Please raise your children with love and nonjudgment. … This is a war, we need your help.”
Critics have charged that “political correctness” explains the different media treatment of the Shepard and Dirkhising murders. News organizations deny any such bias.
“Absolutely not,” responded CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius.
“Every day we have 22 minutes to fill on the ‘CBS Evening News,’ and every day the producers and the senior production staff have to determine what stories make the broadcast and which don’t,” said Ms. Genelius.
“Obviously, we can’t cover every story that happens in this country every day,” the CBS spokeswoman said March 21, “so each day we make an editorial judgment and, on the days when [the Dirkhising murder] story was unfolding, the overall editorial judgment was that it couldn’t fit into the broadcast that day.”
“We’ve been watching the trial and will continue to monitor it,” ABC News spokesman Todd Polkes said March 21. “Currently, we have no plans to report it in our national newscasts. It appears to be a local crime story that does not raise the kind of issues that would warrant our coverage.”
After the March 22 guilty verdict for one of Jesse’s accused killers, Mr. Polkes said there were still “no plans to [report the verdict] on ‘World News Tonight.'”
“We’ve been monitoring the trial,” CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney said March 21. “We have an affiliate [in Fort Smith, Ark.]. But it has not been on our air yet…. Every day, we’re striving for fair, accurate and objective reporting.”
After the verdict, Miss Mahoney said CNN was receiving coverage from its Arkansas affiliate, although no decision had been made whether the story would be reported on the cable news giant.
Powerful lobbying organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which has an annual budget of nearly $4 million, work to shape media portrayals of homosexuality.
Within 48 hours of the attack on Mr. Shepard, GLAAD representative Cathy Renna had flown to Wyoming to coordinate media interviews, delivering the organization’s spin that a “climate of hate” fostered by conservative activists had caused Mr. Shepard’s death.
Ms. Renna told The Washington Times in 1999 that GLAAD has “evolved as an organization that has access to the media,” having “spent a lot of time developing relationships with people” in the news industry.
Another factor in coverage of homosexuality is the large number of open homosexuals employed by major media outlets.
At the New York Times, for instance, “literally three-quarters of the people deciding what’s on the front page are not-so-closeted homosexuals,” Richard Berke, that paper’s national political correspondent, told a gathering of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association last April.
Ordinary newsroom attitudes are also a factor. Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly has written that “most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates into which they plug each day’s events.” U.S. News & World Report columnist John Leo described these “templates” as “a conventional story line in the newsroom culture … a ready-made narrative structure.”
Because the Dirkhising murder “didn’t fit the template,” Mr. Leo wrote last year, “it had no symbolic value and went unreported.”
“The Shepard case was hyped for political reasons: to build support for inclusion of homosexuals in a federal hate-crimes law,” according to the New Republic’s Mr. Sullivan. “The Dirkhising case was ignored for political reasons: squeamishness about reporting a story that could feed anti-gay prejudice, and the lack of any pending interest-group legislation to hang a story on.”
Comparisons between the Shepard and Dirkhising cases are unfair, said GLAAD’s Ms. Renna.
“I think making a comparison between Matthew’s murder and Jesse’s murder does an injustice to both victims,” she told The Washington Times March 21. “They were both brutal, horrifying crimes….
“Our concern about this particular case is that the facts of the case, the brutal details of this, are what is on trial, not the sexual orientation of the two perpetrators,” Ms. Renna said. “This was … not directed against an entire group of people, as a hate crime is.”
But even some in the homosexual community are skeptical of such judgments.
Southern Voice — an online journal for homosexuals — asked its readers if they could face Jesse Dirkhising’s parents “and disclaim any responsibility for gay culture in his killing.”
In an editorial, Voice writer Chris Crain scolded those who “shrug our shoulders and file away Jesse’s murder as the random act of twisted minds that just so happen to be gay.”
Reprinted by permission from The Washington Times. Times’ researcher John Sopko contributed to this report.