Media Bias & a ‘Staggering Discrepancy’
All the back and forth on this blog about race, crime, justice, politics, the media, Trayvon Martin, and so forth, made me think of Mary Stachowicz and Jesse Dirkhising, whose murders I wrote about back in 2002. The Dirkhising name may be familiar to you. He was 13-year-old Arkansas boy sexually tortured and murdered by a homosexual couple in 1999. The murder was all but ignored by the national media. This angered Andrew Sullivan, who denounced media bias in this 2001 New Republic essay (I couldn’t find it on the TNR site; FrontPage republished it). It’s worth quoting at length:
Unless you frequent rabid right-wing sites on the Internet or read The Washington Times, you’ve probably never heard of this case. The New York Times has yet to run a single story about it. The Washington Post has run only a tiny Associated Press report–and an ombudsman’s explanation of why no further coverage is merited. Among certain, mainly gay-hating right-wingers, the discrepancy between the coverage of this case and the wall-to-wall coverage of the similarly horrifying murder of Matthew Shepard proves beyond any doubt that the mainstream media is guilty of pro-gay bias.
Do they have a point? My first, defensive, reaction was no. And reading the accounts from some right-wing outlets, any gay person would be defensive. Some on the far right clearly want to use this case to raise vicious canards about gay men. They want to argue that this pedophilic rape-murder is representative of the “homosexual lifestyle” and to wield it as a weapon against the notion of gay equality and dignity as a whole.
But, difficult as it may be to admit, some of the gay-baiting right’s argument about media bias holds up. Consider the following statistics. In the month after Shepard’s murder, Nexis recorded 3,007 stories about his death. In the month after Dirkhising’s murder, Nexis recorded 46 stories about his. In all of last year, only one article about Dirkhising appeared in a major mainstream newspaper, The Boston Globe. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ignored the incident completely. In the same period, The New York Times published 45 stories about Shepard, and The Washington Post published 28. This discrepancy isn’t just real. It’s staggering.
In The Washington Post, a news editor argued that the paper covers only crimes that are local, inflame local opinion, or have national policy implications. The Shepard story was news in a way 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. It was much more than a murder story for us.” But wasn’t the media’s instant blanket coverage part of the reason for the debate? If the Dirkhising murder had been covered instantly with the same attention to gruesome detail, wouldn’t it, too, have prompted a national conversation?
You might argue that the Shepard murder was a trend story, highlighting the prevalence of anti-gay hate crimes. But murders like Shepard’s are extremely rare. In 1997, a relatively typical recent year, the FBI identified a total of eight hate-crime murders in the United States. The number that were gay-specific was even smaller. Most years, two or three occur at most. How common is a rape-murder like that of Dirkhising? In 1999 there were 46 rape-murders nationwide. If you focus not on the rape-murder aspect but on the fact that Jesse was a child, there were 1,449 murders of minors. There are no reliable statistics on how many of these murders were committed by homosexuals, but let’s generously say 5 percent. That’s a paltry 72 cases. In other words, the murders of Shepard and Dirkhising are both extremely rare, and neither says much that can be generalized to the wider world. So why the obsession with Shepard and the indifference with regard to Dirkhising?
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, and the lack of any pending interest-group legislation to hang a story on. 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 a logical consequence of the culture that hate-crimes 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.
I wonder if Andrew believes that his analysis here — a rather brave one for a gay journalist to have offered, it must be said — is applicable to the way the national media have covered the Trayvon Martin case, versus, say, the case of the two white British tourists murdered by a black thug in Florida, whom witnesses heard making racist remarks before he shot the pair?
UPDATE: Media columnist Alicia Sheperd goes behind the media’s use of two iconic Martin/Zimmerman photos — why those were chosen, how they help emotionally frame the story, and why we’re not likely to see any other photos used in coverage, even though more have become available.