This is why reporters feel comfortable tapping out stories that fit the template, but uneasy about reporting things like black-on-white hate crime or the rate of female violence against their male partners. So there is truth to the charge that nobody wants to print stories embarassing to gays. But it has little to do with gay power or media conspiracy. It's about underdog status, the do-good newsroom ethic and those darned templates.
Unfortunately, complaints about Dirkhising coverage have often been linked to the Shepard murder, as if some kind of competition were under way. The Shepard case was legitimately a huge story, in part because it had the enormous symbolic power of both a lynching and a crucifixion. But there is something odd about the standard media defense: The Shepard story was news in a way that Dirkhising story wasn't because it "prompted debate on hate crimes and the degree to which there is still intolerance of gay people in this country," according to a Washington Post editor.
This comes pretty close to advocacy. Hate-crime legislation was in some trouble at the time and gays were fighting to get included under existing laws. So the rapid spread of the Shepard story helped the cause, and the Post statement can be read as what it probably really is: a gentle endorsement of support for the inclusion of gays under hate-crime laws.
Some of the explosion of anger on the Internet and talk radio has come from haters. But a lot has come from people who sense the advocacy and the double standard: If Jesse Dirkhising had been a gay youngster tortured and killed by straight men, whether for "hate-crime" reasons or just for fun, the story would have gone national in a heartbeat. The Internet furor is a howl of complaint about how the newsroom culture operates.
Because of Andrew Sullivan's April 2 column in The New Republic, I think the news business will have to respond. Sullivan is one of our best-known and important political writers. He is gay. Why the obsession with Shepard and the indifference to Dirkising? Sullivan wrote this: "The answer is politics. The Shepard case was hyped for political reasons: to build support for inclusion of homosexuals in a federal hate-crimes law. The Dirkhising case was ignored for political reasons: squeamishness about reporting a story that could feed anti-gay prejudice."
This is exactly what various big-time media have been denying for a year. In a chat last week with me, Sullivan mentioned that "The New York Times would rather go out of business than report the Dirkhising story." A courageous and honest man. How about an eqully frank response from the media?