John Leo
For nearly 18 months now, the news media have been trying to brush off complaints about their non-coverage of the Jesse Dirkhising murder, but the issue won't go away. Dirkhising is the 13-year-old Arkansas boy who was drugged, tied to a bed, raped, tortured and suffocated in September of 1999. Both accused killers are homosexual men.

At first, The Associated Press did not put the story on the national wire. But The Washington Times ran a Page One report. It contrasted the enormous coverage of the Matthew Shepard torture-murder with the media silence about a somewhat similar case in which the alleged perpetrators were gay. Then Brent Bozell's Media Research Center and Bill O'Reilly of Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" weighed in, raising the issue of media bias. "Nobody wants to say anything negative about homosexuals," said a Research Center spokesman.

The story was soon all over talk radio and the Internet, but nearly invisible in mainstream media. Even the conviction of the first accused rapist-killer last month barely got reported. Since the murder, not one story has appeared in The New York Times. The first one in USA Today appeared a month ago. CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN have been silent. The Washington Post produced two little squibs on the case. But on the Internet, it's a big story. This is bad news for the news media: a story told everywhere except in mainstream newspapers and magazines and on TV.

Big-time media seem exasperated by these complaints. They know that editors don't sit around comparing murder coverage for fairness. Some stories catch on nationally, while similar ones don't. Besides, the media can't cover all grisly sex crimes around the country.

True enough, but aren't child murders often singled out for national attention? The 1994 rape-murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey was a huge national story. The 1993 abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas was even bigger -- about 3,000 news stories in 14 months, according to a computer search. The horrendous details of what was done to Jesse Dirkhising might have made the story jump out for similar attention. But they didn't. Why not?

In a memorable column, Michael Kelly, editor of National Journal, said that "most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates into which they plug each day's events." In other words, there are conventional story lines in the newsroom culture that provide ready-made narrative structures. One of these templates is that newsworthy personal violence is the kind perpetrated by the strong against the weak (gays, women and minorities).

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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