Accusations of Media Bias in the Jesse Dirkhising Case
A summary and analysis of coverage and arguments.
By Terry Krepel
Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, believes (Barrett, 1999) that journalism is in a “deconstruction” phase, plagued by shallow reports driven by television and the 24-hour news cycle, political correctness run amok and media conglomerates that stress profits as much as public service. Surveys by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press (Barrett, 1999) show that over the past 15 years, the percentage of Americans who describe the news media as "immoral" climbed from 13 percent to 38 percent, and the percentage who see journalists as unprofessional grew from 11 percent to 32 percent. It was into this crucible of “deconstruction” that the Jesse Dirkhising story appeared.
Despite the disparity in the number of stories about Matthew Shepard and Dirkhising, that in itself is not ironclad proof of bias in the mainstream media. Suggestions that the mainstream media downplayed the Dirkhising story because of a pro-homosexual bias are circumstantial and not proof of bias in and of itself. The media has reported on other homosexual murderers; as Rich (1999) notes, “it’s sure done a poor job of keeping Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrew Cunanan, among others, a secret.” Cunanan was accused of killing five people, including fashion designer Gianni Versace, and a manhunt for him generated significant media coverage; Dahmer killed 17 men over 13 years.
Roberts (Barrett, 1999) suggests that “all news is relative to what else is going on at the time. ... You can argue that happenstance should not play a role in these things, but they do.” The ongoing debate over “hate crime” laws likely helped to drive coverage of the Shepard story, and it’s not a stretch to conclude, as Sullivan does (2001), that his death was exploited for political purposes. But it is also as easy to conclude that Dirkhising’s death was promoted by at least some conservatives in order to achieve political goals; the case has been used as a reason to defeat “hate crime” laws (Jacoby, 1999) and oppose greater participation of homosexuals in public life (Irvine, 2001). And it could be argued that using the case to paint the mainstream media as “liberal” and pro-homosexual is another part of a conservative political agenda; Sheldon (2001) suggests that the Dirkhising story was "spiked by a journalistic community co-opted by radical sex groups."
Conservatives have implied that both the Shepard and Dirkhising deaths both involved homosexuals, the two are equivalent, and therefore Dirkhising's death should have received the same coverage that Shepard's did. But the nature of the deaths themselves are different; Shepard's death has been classified as a hate crime which, generally speaking, tends to get attention from the mainstream media, while Dirkhising's death has been classified as a sex crime, which rarely gets national media attention. One of the few murder cases to receive national news coverage in which sex played a major factor was the "preppy murder" case of Jennifer Levin, who died in 1986 during apparent rough sex in New York's Central Park with Robert Chambers, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter. As Shipp (1999) writes, "A hate crime homicide such as Shepard's and, four months before that, James Byrd's in Jasper, Tex., is, 'a special kind of killing,' The (Washington) Post has editorialized. 'It tells a segment of American society that its physical safety is at risk.' Arkansas authorities have not characterized the Dirkhising death as a hate crime."
Members of the mainstream media who addressed the issue of why did not cover the Dirkhising case justified their actions by saying that the case did not bring up larger issues. While the issues of homosexuality in public life and “hate crime” laws as applied when a member of a subgroup seeking protection under them is a perpetrator rather than victim of a crime are seen as issues among conservatives and reflected in conservative-oreinted media, they are not considered issues in mainstream media. But their conservative critics provided that larger issue sought by the mainstream media, and the case was tackled in the mainstream media in the context of allegations of media bias. In other words, the mainstream media gave the Dirkhising case little attention until conservatives made an issue of it, and the mainstream media's lack of coverage became the hook on which the mainstream media hung the bulk of its coverage on. Ultimately, both sides appeared to have gotten what they wanted: conservatives, whose criticism gave additional exposure that might not have happened otherwise to a case that raised issues important to them; and the mainstream media, which used that criticism to create a story that fit its own definition of news and which helped deflect allegations of bias, even if their coverage of Dirkhising did not approach that of Shepard.
That conservatives, through their coverage of the issue, were able to prompt parts of the mainstream media to cover it as well illustrates the credence and reliance a growing number of Americans are giving to non-mainstream sources of news as well as providing another example of the “deconstruction” of American journalism.
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