Hours after Miami Police identified Andrew Cunanan's body, ABC's Ellen received five Emmy nominations. It was an ironic coupling of events. While Ellen DeGeneres may eventually be regarded as one of the greatest public relations representatives the gay community has ever seen, Cunanan will undoubtedly be considered one of the worst.
For three months this spring, the media were captivated by Ellen and its star. They seemed to care about gay men and lesbians, and when the coming-out episode garnered extremely high ratings, it seemed the public cared too. But then Gianni Versace was killed on the steps of his South Beach mansion, and things changed. The media still cared, that's for sure. But instead of cute blonde actresses who make refreshingly honest jokes, they wanted to hear about sick men who sell their bodies for fun and profit.
The media are supposed to hold up a mirror to reflect whom they're reporting on; in the Cunanan case, however, the mirror seemed to reflect the media's own confused perceptions about who gay men are. When the Los Angeles Times wrote a news article on how the media covered the Cunanan story, it arrogantly proclaimed, "The issue is less ill will on the media's part than its struggle to adjust to the rapidly changing mores of the gay community--as if there's an annual gay and lesbian convention where mores are voted on or a collective gay consciousness capable of arriving at a consensus for such a diverse group.
Maybe it's just the way the media deal with sordid slayings. Whatever the reason, gays were demonized once again. The point is not that there wasn't good reporting or that every bit of the omnipresent, obsessive coverage of the shooting was laced with a vicious homophobic subtext. To the contrary. Many of the journalists did a better job uncovering clues than the FBI, and much of the mainstream press was vigilant about not treating the case like a faggot hunt. Nevertheless, ugliness seeped into the newsprint like blood into limestone.
"Homicidal homosexual" is the way Tom Brokaw described Cunanan on the NBC Nightly News. On CNN & Company, anchor Mary Tillotson asked her guests whether serial killers have a "proclivity" for "sexual dysfunction."
"My visceral sense is that the coverage says gayness is all about sex, that sex is perverted and leads to horrible murder," says Leroy Aarons, former president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Cunanan was, after all, the "gay serial killer" (occasionally he was "allegedly" one).
While letter writers and a few pundits have said, "You'd never call him a Filipino serial killer," no one ever gets to the point: Linking Cunanan's sexual identity to his violent actions is a specious act. By suggesting (or sometimes blatantly saying) that his sexual orientation somehow informed the hideous crimes Cunanan was accused of committing, the media implied that any one's homosexuality can cause them to run around the country blowing off heads, slashing necks, and pounding faces with crowbars. In some reports the message became clear: Violence is just part of the "lifestyle." It was The Great Gatsby meets Cruising.
"It's been a mixed bag," says Liz Tracey, associate communications director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group. "Some of it's actually been really good. But a lot of outlets have been taking things without much evidence and just going with them." And it wasn't just the New York Post, which almost daily printed something that deserved an angry press release from GLAAD. Just about every major news organization added to the stack of misinformation.
For many in the media, truth wasn't nearly as important as what they perceived the public expected: wondrous and effervescent stereotypes of serial murderers (one victim was wrapped like a mummy--was Cunanan playing out a sexual fantasy?), spree killers (did AIDS set off his rage? …