A double standard?

Two gays allegedly raped and murdered a young boy. Why didn't it get covered as much as the Matthew Shepard case?

Published October 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The rape and murder of an Arkansas teenager last month has become Topic A among some right-wing media-bashers. Jesse Dirkhising, 13, was allegedly raped and suffocated -- gagged with his own underwear -- by a 22-year-old man while another man, described by police as his "lover," looked on. The Associated Press picked the story up on its local and state wires and has followed up on it since, though none of the reports went national. Which is precisely what the right finds suspicious.

In an Oct. 22 story ("Media tune out torture death of Arkansas boy"), the Washington Times contrasted this lack of coverage with the treatment the murder of Matthew Shepard received. The AP carried stories relating to his death on its national wire, and news of the trial is being handled the same way. What these two stories have to do with each other is something only the Washington Times could discern. For clarification, the Moonie paper turned to Tim Graham, the director of media studies at the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog organization.

"Nobody wants to say anything negative about homosexuals," Graham told the Times. "Nobody wants to be seen on the wrong side of that issue."

Clear? The national media (the Washington Times also called NBC News) will make a big deal of it when a gay man is killed but not when gay men kill someone. Even a child.

This story has been percolating for a few weeks now. Salon received at least one e-mail on the subject (topic: "I dare you to print this!") and the matter was entertained on the Fox News Channel's "O'Reilly Factor" earlier this week. But the question of the coverage the killing received got its biggest public airing at the weekly White House news conference Monday. Baltimore talk-show host Les Kinsolving asked White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, "Joe, since the president spoke out so commendably about the murder of adult homosexual Matt Shepard in Wyoming, I'm wondering what was his reaction to the repeated rape and murder of 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising by two adult homosexual men in Arkansas?"

"I don't know that the president is aware of that circumstance," replied Lockhart.

"It was Page 1 of the Washington Times on Saturday," Kinsolving said helpfully. "Don't you read that paper, Joe?"

"No, I don't normally do, nor do I think the president [does]," replied Lockhart. (At least he's honest.) But Kinsolving persisted.

"As his media advisor, were you surprised that while the murder of an adult, Shepard, received enormous coverage in the big media, this multiple rape and murder of a child went so widely unreported?"

"I try to keep my media criticisms to myself," said Lockhart.

Over at AP, spokesman Jack Stokes sounded a little perplexed by the whole question. "I was asked about that -- the charges -- before," he said. "The insinuation was that these were both hate-crime stories. I still don't understand the comparison."

Indeed, Shepard's murder was immediately seized upon as a hate-crime story and the element of homophobia keeps the story in the news today. Dirkhising's death was evidently the result of rape -- not generally considered a "hate crime," even at its most generously defined. For national news to run with a rape-and-murder story, even when there is a child involved, it has to be even more extraordinary.

The murder and rape of a 10-year-old girl in Kansas this week was picked up nationally by AP, but only after a manhunt of several days involving hundreds of searchers and tearful TV pleas from the mother for her daughter's safe return. (Her accused killer reportedly told a co-worker he "would like to kidnap a girl to rape, torture, electrocute, kill and bury.") In Wisconsin, four teenage girls were captured and repeatedly raped, a story that almost made national headlines. But they were taken across state lines, held for two weeks and raped by as many as 20 men and boys. Furthermore, all the victims and suspects were members of the Hmong ethnic group.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Dirkhising, a seventh-grader in Prarie Grove, Ark., were more depressingly mundane. The men accused of killing him -- Joshua Macave Brown, 22, and Davis Don Carpenter, 38 -- were friends of his parents. The boy worked at Carpenter's hair salon and had been spending weekends there.

"News stories published about the crime, to date, have not indicated the suspects are homosexuals," the Washington Times complained. Though this could just as easily be flagged as a pedophilia story or a cautionary tale about parental neglect, the paper clearly believes that the real angle has to do with gay men and children. (You know how they are.)

So far this tack hasn't quite caught on, though you can expect to hear more about it in the future. The false parallel is a classic rhetorical device, the sort of thing Ross Perot calls "gorilla dust." The Times did find someone else to share its outrage, however. Former KKK wizard David Duke, who now describes himself as "a national white civil rights activist" suggested candlelight vigils for the murdered teenager.

Robe and hood optional.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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