Accusations of Media Bias in the Jesse Dirkhising Case
A summary and analysis of coverage and arguments.
By Terry Krepel
COVERAGE AND ARGUMENTS
In the first few weeks following Dirkhising’s death, coverage remained the province of the Arkansas media mostly local newspapers in the Rogers area and the state’s largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which prints a separate edition in that area. Stories were also distributed on The Associated Press’ state and regional wire and appeared in adjacent regional newspapers such as the Tulsa World and Memphis Commercial Appeal. On Oct. 20, the conservative group Family Research Council sent out an electronic newsletter about the case (Rich, 1999). On Oct. 22 nearly a month after Dirkhising’s death, as the trial of Aaron McKinney in the death of Shepard was in full swing and receiving national media coverage the Washington Times, a conservative-oriented newspaper in the nation’s capital, ran a story on the Dirkhising case (Price, 1999) that questioned why it did not receive the widespread media coverage given to the Shepard case; it also noted that David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader turned “national white civil rights activist,” had taken an interest in the case. That same day, the conservative news Web site WorldNetDaily, which claims it was “first to provide national exposure to the story of the homosexual rape-murder of 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising” (2000), offered a column by the site’s CEO, Joseph Farah (1999, October 22), describing the case and suggesting the national media was ignoring it “because the victim is not a part of some politically protected sub-group.” Other conservative commentators discussing the case include the Media Research Center’s L. Brent Bozell (1999), a syndicated columnist, on Oct. 29 and reproduced in the Washington Times on Nov. 1.
The Washington Times story prompted The Associated Press to assign its staff in Little Rock, Ark., to do a story on the case for national wires (Shipp, 1999); it was transmitted Oct. 29. It may have also prompted a Baltimore talk-show host to ask White House press secretary Joe Lockhart about the case during a White House press conference Oct. 25 (Pierce, 1999).
These stories began to get the attention of those in the mainstream media. On Nov. 6, New York Times columnist Frank Rich (1999) described the case without using Dirkhising’s name and calling the accusation of bias “specious” and “rabble-rousing in the guise of media criticism.” On Nov. 14, Washington Post ombudsman E.R. Shipp (1999) noted that “readers, prodded by commentators who are hostile to homosexuals and to what they view as a ‘liberal’ press” had raised questions about the Dirkhising case, adding that the Post ran a brief of the Associated Press story on Oct. 30. Shipp made a clear distinction between the Dirkhising and Shepard cases: “Matthew Shepard’s death sparked public expressions of outrage that themselves became news. That Jesse Dirkhising’s death has not done so is hardly the fault of The Washington Post.” (Shipp also criticized the tactics of “the David Dukes (and) Joseph Farahs ... of this world,” which prompted Farah (1999, November 16) to take offense at “the implication that I have anything in common with a Ku Klux Klansman.”)
Also in early November, Jonathan Gregg, a writer for Time magazine’s web site, issued a similar defense of its coverage (1999). “The reason the Dirkhising story received so little play is because it offered no lessons,” Gregg wrote. “There is no lesson here, no moral of tolerance, no hope to be gleaned in the punishment of the perpetrators. To be somehow equated with these monsters would be a bitter legacy indeed for Matthew Shepard.”
Coverage of the Dirkhising case cooled down after that. Coverage later in 1999 and in most of 2000 consisted mostly of prodedural issues involving the defendants and relegated to the AP state and regional wire where many of the stories were written by an AP staff writer and news sites such as WorldNetDaily and the Media Research Center’s Cybercast News Service (then called the Conservative News Service). Among the few appearances of the case in the mainstream media during this time came from conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby (1999), who used the case to make an argument against “hate crime” laws, another Globe news article (Haddigan, 2000) about the use of the case to make charges of media bias, and a commentary by Robert Knight of the Family Research Center (1999), that appeared in the San Diego News-Tribune on Dec. 3. The Washington Times (Aynesworth, 1999) offered another story Dec. 20 on the community where Dirkhising’s death occurred which suggested that some residents of the town consider the lack of national coverage about the case “proved their darkest suspicions of a liberal press bias favoring homosexuals.”
The murder trial of Brown in March 2001, however, renewed media attention in the case. The Associated Press assigned a writer from its Arkansas bureau to cover the trial, and the stories went out daily on the AP national wire. A Lexis-Nexis search shows that newspapers such as the San Diego Union Tribune, Ottawa Citizen, USA Today, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Republic and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran accounts of the trial at one point or another, mostly when the guilty verdict was announced; the accounts were usually short, between 100 and 300 words. The Washington Times reproduced accounts of the trial from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and ran an article (McCain, 2001) examining the issue of media bias similar in tone to its 1999 article. The Democrat-Gazette ran its own article on media bias (Davis, 2001). Interestingly, the conservative news Web sites that had helped to push the Dirkhising case to a certain level of national prominence and had reported on other legal proceedings in the case did not offer daily coverage of the Brown trial (Krepel, 2001).
The Fox News Channel sent a reporter to cover the trial and offered daily coverage, and also used the case as a subject for segments on a number of the channel’s talk-debate shows, including Hannity & Colmes, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox Special Report with Brit Hume and The Edge with Paula Zahn.
The trial also offered another opportunity for conservative writers to revive accusations of media bias. Bozell (2001) wrote once more on the issue (claiming that “the double standard in media coverage suggests that some poor departed fractions of mankind must go ignored and unmourned for the greater good”), as did Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, for Cybercast News Service (2001), Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid (2001) for Accuracy in Media (who allege that “a homosexual New York Times reporter has said that three-quarters of the people who decide what’s on the front page of the New York Times are barely-closeted homosexuals”) and John Leo for U.S. News & World Report (2001). The new articles make more or less the same arguments as the conservatives’ articles of 1999.
Also of note is an article in the moderate-to-left political journal The New Republic by senior editor Andrew Sullivan, a homosexual, who attacked those using the case to disparage homosexuality but also said that the difference between coverage given to the Shepard and Dirkhising cases “isn’t just real. It’s staggering.” He cites as evidence Lexis-Nexis statistics indicating that there were 3,007 stories about Matthew Shepard in the month after his death but only 46 about Dirkhising in the month after his death. “The Shepard case was hyped for political reasons: to build support for inclusion of homosexuals in a federal hate-crimes law,” Sullivan states. “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.”
As in 1999, this conservative-driven attention prompted one member of the "mainstream" media to offer a defense of why it decided not to cover the case. ABC News, in a story on its April 10 "World News Tonight" (Brown, 2001), summarized the Dirkhising case and the accusations of bias, cited Sullivan’s comments as providing “more weight” to the bias argument, then concluded: “In Dirkhising, the media saw a terrible crime, but no larger issue. That may seem cold, but countless rapes and murders, gay and straight, go unreported all the time for exactly that reason. Which is part of what’s so remarkable about this debate, that it centers on a news decision that for most of the national media was easy and logical and routine.”
The plea deal of Carpenter in April 2001 received little media attention beyond the Arkansas region.