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MediaWatch: November 2, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 19

Matthew Shepard's Mudbath Memorial

The vicious pistol-whipping of gay college student Matthew Shepard and the vivid imagery of its aftermath insured the attention of the national media. (Newsweek wrote the killers "left him tied like a fallen scarecrow — or a savior — to the bottom of a cross-hatched fence.") Liberal gay activist groups were quick to use the tragedy for political gain. First came a flurry of stories on the need for "hate crime" legislation. Then came guilt by association: the gay left charged Shepard had been killed not by two men, but by a climate — by conservative arguments that homosexuality was wrong and could be cured.

When conservatives have connected social outrages to an opponent’s beliefs or rhetoric, the media quickly denounced the conservative, tried to refute the argument, or both. But in the wake of Shepard’s death, several media outlets were guilty of a double standard, promoting without skepticism on the left what they denounced on the right.

NBC. On October 12, Today co-host Katie Couric asked Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer: "Some gay rights activists have said that some conservative political organizations like the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Focus on Family are contributing to this anti-homosexual atmosphere by having an ad campaign saying if you are a homosexual you can change your orientation. That prompts people to say, if I meet someone who’s homosexual, I’m going to take action and try to convince them or try to harm them. Do you believe that such groups are contributing to this climate?"

Today repeated the charge the next day. Reporter David Gregory declared: "Gay rights groups rushed to condemn the killing, portraying Shepard as a casualty of a new cultural war against gays and lesbians. A war declared this summer by a coalition of religious-right groups, including the Christian Coalition, which funded advertisements in major newspapers and commercials on TV promoting a campaign to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality...And the campaign followed the divisive comments of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who said in an interview that homosexuals should be helped like alcoholics, sex addicts, and kleptomaniacs. Have the ads fostered a climate of anti-gay hate that leads to incidents like the killing of Matthew Shepard?" Couric interviewed gay-left activist Elizabeth Birch, but didn’t question whether her tone was uncivil, or even a "stretch."

Compare that to NBC’s tsk-tsking of Newt Gingrich. In a hostile November 15, 1994 Dateline profile, Tom Brokaw announced: "When Democrats tried to reform lobbyists recently, he called their efforts Stalinist." Brokaw asked Gingrich: "Stalin is the man who, after all, created the Gulag, who killed hundreds of millions of people, one of the great tyrants of the 20th century. Don’t you see how people react to you?" After reeling off other Gingrich statements he felt were inappropriate, Brokaw asked: "I get the impression that you’re so pugnacious that what you say is hard for you to reel it back right away."

On May 7, 1995, Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Gingrich: "When you were asked after the bombing whether it was appropriate to link your anti-government/bureaucratic language creating the climate of the bombing, you said that was grotesque. In retrospect, do you think your comments about Woody Allen sleeping with his companion’s daughter, or Susan Smith driving her car into the water, which you linked to the Democratic Party, is also grotesque?" He added: "When you suggest that Woody Allen sleeping with the daughter of his companion is covered under the Democratic Party platform, that's a stretch." Russert demanded: "You suggested that the Democratic Party is the enemy of normal Americans. Shouldn’t that rhetoric be lowered?"

Time. In the October 19 issue, Time Assistant Managing Editor Howard Chua-Eoan connected the dots: "The brutal assault came at a time when the U.S. is buzzing with a dissonant debate over sexual orientation. It is a controversy fueled by reports of increased violence against homosexuals and a new campaign by religious conservatives touting the power of faith to overcome what they proclaim to be a sinful sensuality."

In the October 26 issue, Time underlined guilt by association again with a graphic headlined "Can Politics Cause Hate? Gay activists linked recent conservative pronouncements (like ads saying gays can be ‘cured’) to the Shepard murder, saying such talk nurtures bigotry."

But Time didn’t take the same approach to the left. In April 1996, when Ted Kaczynski was identified as the Unabomber, ABC’s Brian Ross reported the FBI found his name in connection with the radical-left group Earth First. Would Time note the connection? No. Time claimed no one recalled the Unabomber having contact "with the leftists he would later excoriate in his manifesto." Time reporter Elaine Shannon praised Kaczynski on C-SPAN, noting "he wasn’t a hypocrite, he lived as he wrote. His manifesto and there are a lot of things in it that I would agree with and a lot of other people would, that industrialization and pollution are terrible things, but he carried it to an extreme."

Newsweek. In an October 26 essay titled "Trickle-Down Hate," Jonathan Alter suggested: "At first, it seems unfair to link the anti-gay remarks of political leaders to a heinous crime they don’t condone...But just as white racists created a climate for lynching blacks, just as hate radio created a climate for militias, so the constant degrading of homosexuals is exacting a toll in blood." In his unbylined "Conventional Wisdom Watch" feature, Alter gave the Christian Right a down arrow: "Old: In touch with moral America. New: Paves way for gay-lynchers."

In the July 10, 1995 issue, Alter had a different take on the validity of less-than-modern ideas when the Unabomber demanded the publication of his manifesto in major newspapers. Alter found him to be a "twisted neo-Luddite," but not all bad, and perhaps the papers ought to excerpt the good parts: "The [New York]Times described the statement as ‘closely reasoned,’ which is a better review than many authors receive in the paper. Whoever he is, this man is clearly expressing an anger at the modern world that is not only well-articulated but representative of the anxieties of lots of other people."

Newsweek also distanced the Unabomber from the left in 1996, quoting a source claiming Kaczynski was "‘disgusted with the widespread drug use and liberal politics’ at Berkeley. Maybe so: the Unabomer [sic] manifesto is harshly critical of leftism."