Accusations of Media Bias in the Jesse Dirkhising Case
A summary and analysis of coverage and arguments.
By Terry Krepel
Television network news operations and major newspapers what most people consider the “mainstream media” have in recent years come under increased scrutiny by politically oriented groups over alleged biases in their presentation of news and the type of stories they cover. (Indeed, the proliferation of media in and of itself seems to inspire criticism; according to writer Greg Barrett (1999), “... the news media always seem to be around, like the kid brother two steps off your heels. ... Always a easy mark.”) While some of this activity comes from the liberal end of the political spectrum from groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the majority of scrutiny and criticism can be found coming from the conservative end. Niven (1999) notes that one search of 1990s newspaper articles found an over 4-to-1 ratio of stories alleging anti-conservative or anti-Republican bias to stories alleging a bias in their favor. Entire organizations, such as the Media Research Center and Accuracy in Media, have been founded with the purpose of documenting alleged liberal media bias; the Media Research Center describes itself (n.d.) as “the nation’s largest and most respected conservative media watchdog organization” that is dedicated to “combating the undeniable bias” of the mainstream media. Additionally, the advent of the Internet has created new sources of news, some of which cater to political conservatives, such as NewsMax and WorldNetDaily, and the Fox News Channel, a 24-hour cable news operation created in 1996, has been described in a Columbia Journalism Review article as “unmistakably a bully pulpit for conservative sentiment in America” (Hickey, 1998).
Researcher C. Richard Hofstetter (Niven, 1999) admits that concluding whether or not the media are biased “in an objective and scientific manner is no simple and straightforward matter.” While journalists and critics alike tend to agree that the majority of journalists hold political viewpoints that are left of center (Wicklein, 1997), the issue of whether this translates into anti-conservative or anti-Republican bias remains a subject of debate. Both sides can cite studies supporting their point of view; methods in achieving results have ranged from use keyword searches in story databases (Levite, 1996) to coverage extrapolated from an objective and known truth such as crime or unemployment statistics (Niven, 1999). Levite (1996) suggests that the nature of the journalistic occupation a relatively well-paying, “cushy and enjoyable” job in which they report what is happening in the world but do not participate in it makes journalists more liberal, while Everette E. Dennis (Wicklein, 1997) argues that politically tainted journalism is bad business in an industry increasingly controlled by corporate conglomerates. Wesley Pruden, editor of the Washington Times, a newspaper widely considered to approach news from a conserative point of view, believes that “people who go into journalism are skeptics of established order. Conservatives are respectful of institutions, and so they are not drawn into journalism as much as liberals" (Wicklein, 1997). Media critic Ben Bagdikian (Wicklein, 1997) suggests that "Most conservatives consider news bias to be any news that departs from the promotion of conservatism and corourate values." Columnist and former newspaper editor Geneva Overholser (2000), while admitting that the accusation of bias “has enough elements of truth to cow journalists into almost being convinced” and that “the press is persistently unfair to fundamentalist Christians,” says that in general the media “operate by zigs and zags, rushing from one side of the ship to the other to balance it.” Overholser also argues (Barrett, 1999) that the media’s biases are not linked to ideology but toward negativity and convention: “Whatever the prevailing view is, that’s what will drive our reporting.”
One key feature that conservative-oriented media and media watchdogs have in common is the contention that the mainstream media has ignored or downplayed coverage of certain issues and stories because of an alleged liberal bias. This article will explore these accusations and the mainstream media’s response as they relate to one particular story frequently been cited as an example of such bias: the case of Jesse Dirkhising.
Jesse Dirkhising, a 13-year-old boy in Prairie Grove, Ark., died September 26, 1999, in an apartment in nearby Rogers, Ark. He had been bound, gagged, drugged and repeatedly sodomized. The cause of his death was listed as “positional asphyxia.” Two homosexual lovers, Davis Don Carpenter and Joshua Brown, were charged in Dirkhising’s death. In March 2001, Brown was tried and found guilty of first-degree murder; he was sentenced to life in prison. Carpenter entered into a plea agreement in April 2001 in which he pleaded guilty to murder in exchange for a life sentence, avoiding a possible death penalty in a trial.
Dirkhising’s case has been compared to that of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old homosexual college student who was lured from a Laramie, Wyo., bar on October 6, 1998, by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who then robbed Shepard, severely beat him and tied him to a fence. Shepard died three days later. Henderson pleaded guilty in April 1999 and received two life sentences; following a trial in October 1999 in which he was found guilty of murder, McKinney accepted two life sentences in exchange for agreeing not to appeal his conviction.