Boy's Death Spotlights Bias in Coverage of Gays

Article excerpt

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 yesterday of rape and first-degree murder in a trial that began March 13.

Through yesterday afternoon, 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 is now provoking 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 Monday 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 Wednesday, "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 Wednesday. "Currently, we have no plans to report it in our national newscasts. …