Monday, November 29, 2004

ABC beats up Matthew Shepard

Sometimes you just have to take a day or two to calm down…

Whenever a criticism of a media story takes the form of: they shouldn’t have done it, one’s guard naturally goes up against the possibility of censorship. I believe in a free press. Nevertheless, they shouldn’t have done it.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six years, on October 7th, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left to die tied to a fence near Laramie Wyoming. He died five days later. It was a viscous anti-gay hate crime that captured the nation’s attention.

On Friday, November 26th, ABC’s 20/20 ran a piece on the killing called “A Murder In Laramie: The Mystery And The Myth” that promised to offer “new information.” Instead they offered a re-framing of the story, allowing the killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, to spin their own tale and left it largely unchallenged. The narrative offered by Elizabeth Vargas and the 20/20 producers told a story of a drug induced rage by McKinney and Henderson that had nothing to do with Matthew being gay. It implied that Matthew was himself involved with drugs and perhaps suicidal, although it is not clear what that had to do with the murder. And it alleged that McKinney was bisexual, and therefore apparently not capable of homophobia.

This formula - a murder mystery seems to unfold one way, but shocking new evidence reveals an alternative story – has become standard fare on the television “news magazines.” But this isn’t a standard Dateline/Court TV-Exclusive type story. And the producers were quite conscious of taking on “the gay hate crime theory.” At issue wasn’t who dunnit, but rather why they did it. That’s supposed to be the “mystery” part.

But there was nothing new here. All of the so-called “new” information had previously been reported on and discredited or shown to be irrelevant. GLAAD has posted an excellent summary of the factual errors in 20/20s segment. There’s no mystery here.

So then, why do the story? What motivated them to give air time to McKinney and Henderson’s self-serving version of events?

Well that would be the “myth” part. ABC’s companion on-line story doesn’t contain the word “myth”, but it does use the word “theory” and only once: (emphasis added)

Helping fuel the gay hate crime theory were statements made to police and the media by Kristen Price, McKinney's girlfriend. (Price was charged with felony accessory after-the-fact to first-degree murder. She later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with police officers.) Price now says that at the time of the crime she thought things would go easier for McKinney if his violence were seen as a panic reaction to an unwanted gay sexual advance. But today, Price tells Vargas the initial statements she made were not true and tells Vargas that McKinney's motive was money and drugs. "I don't think it was a hate crime at all. I never did," she said.

The only thing approaching de-bunking in the story 20/20 presents is challenging the idea that this was a hate crime in the first place. They seemed pretty motivated to do so too. Matthew Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard have posted their account of being interviewed by 20/20 for the piece and what was left out – anything that contradicted the “new information” Vargas presented. GLAAD points out:

At the end of the piece, Vargas attempts to suggest that Judy Shepard even agrees with the premise of 20/20's piece by setting up (in voice-over) a soundbite from Judy by saying, "Even Matthew's mother says her son's life and death have been mythologized." Yet Judy's quote only focuses on her perception that her son was an ordinary young man.

And, no, this wasn’t an examination of anti-gay hate crimes in general. On November 22nd the FBI released a report demonstrating that gay people were the targets of one in six hate crimes last year. 20/20 made no mention of this nor the six gay men murdered last year in hate crimes. ABC posted this story on-line, but only the same day as the 20/20 piece, along with another story on anti-gay hate crimes they had to dredge up from October 2003.

Okay, sensationalizing and distorting a story for ratings is nothing new, especially for the TV news magazine format. But if this was a ratings ploy, who was the target audience? Not me. Not any queer - anywhere.

Take a step back and realize that national media, and really our culture, only have one way to deal with a crime – demonize someone. Someone must be bad. It doesn’t have to be the criminal. But it helps if the good/bad dichotomy in the crime story fits the good/bad dichotomy in our culture's story. Blaming the victim is old news. Blaming women for being raped, blaming queers for being bashed – ABC didn’t invent this sort of thing. But they did seek a market for it. They sought a market uncomfortable with a story that depicts “normal” heterosexuals as the bad guys while a “deviant” gay person has practically been deified.

Homophobes picketed Matthew’s funeral with hate speech and signs such as "God Hates Fags" and "Gay Matt in Hell." There is a market for what ABC was selling. They want a different story, one in which hatred of gays and lesbians is not to blame. Last Friday night, they got it.

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At 11:56 PM, Blogger Rick Barnes said...


What ABC did here was unbelievable. These people left factual stuff on the cutting floor when they made this documantary. They had to have tripped over it often as they left so many of facts out, it must have ended up being swept up and out the door to prevent further harm



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