May 10, 2002
by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Instead of interpreting this record as evidence of unhealthy racial preoccupation, the Times depicted Smith as a man of “principle,” explaining that he lived “an ardent credo” of black “self-sufficiency” and “resistance,” and that his actions inside Freddy’s were not criminal per se, but a strange act of suicide in protest against the “institutional force” of white racism.
Amazingly enough, such grotesque fantasies in the press’s race coverage do not even begin to tell the story of America’s press bias. There are perpetual cover-ups and silence on important news regarding women, gays, and immigrants. These, of course, are all areas that have provided plenty of news hooks over the past few decades, but the press somehow never bites.
Among the most damning incidents exposing the media’s dangerous vow of silence is the murder of Jesse Dirkhising (see “Mourning Jesse Dirkhising,” American Outlook, Winter 2000). Dirkhising’s name should be as familiar to Americans as Matthew Shepard’s. But unlike Shepard’s, Dirkhising’s murder didn’t pass the newsroom sensitivity test. In the fall of 1988, Shepard, a gay teenager, was lured from a bar by two men, beaten unconscious, tied to a fence, and left to freeze to death in Wyoming. The vicious attack was rightly condemned and became a national story. Shepard’s murder became synonymous with “homophobia,” and media types even managed to tie it back to political conservatives. A Nexis news database search found over 3,000 stories on the murder in the month after it happened. From the time of Shepard’s murder to the end of the trial of his killers, the New York Times ran 195 stories on the Shepard case. The senselessness of Shepard’s murder made it a national story, but the media didn’t deem Jesse Dirkhising’s horrid murder the next year worthy of similar coverage—or in many cases, any coverage at all.
It was surely as representative of a greater reality as Shepard’s was. Dirkhising was thirteen years old when his two gay neighbors invited him over to their house, drugged him, tied him to a bed, gagged him with his underwear, and duct-taped his mouth shut. They proceeded to rape the boy for two hours in unspeakable ways. When they were through with him, they left him to suffocate.
In contrast to the 3,007 stories in the month after Matthew Shepard’s murder, only 46 stories would appear in the national news about Dirkhising. Many of the major media outlets—both print and television—entirely ignored Dirkhising’s death: the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC never ran anything about the case. Coverage was confined to conservative media outlets and gay journalist Andrew Sullivan, who wrote about it in the New Republic and on his website (www.andrewsullivan.com). Despite queries from McGowan and defenses by media ombudsmen, “No one admitted the obvious,” McGowan writes, “that the Dirkhising story was too hot to handle because it raised the explosive issue of gay pedophilia and because it threatened the sanctity of the gays-as-victims-script which had attained status of holy writ in the media.”
When it comes to homosexuality, not even an epidemic of death could shake the PC regime. McGowan quotes Elinor Burkett, a journalist who reported on AIDS for the Miami Herald in the 1980s, describing her beat: “The experience reminded me how expendable the truth is when a wider agenda is being pursued. . . . Dozens of stories didn’t make it into the paper or on the air because they might have offended the sensibilities of the PC police.” Burkett refers to the lie the media happily peddled—that AIDs was an equal-opportunity killer—a lie that rapidly killed the very people it sought to protect.
As horrible as these irresponsible failures to accurately report the news have been, there’s much more bias to be found. If you think that feminism’s silliness is irrelevant now that we are knee-deep in a war on terrorism, think again. The same media who have been skeptical of the military since the days of Vietnam have been quite content to take the armed forces at its word when the issue has had anything to do with women, readily accepting the officers’ claims that standards are not being lowered to accommodate female recruits. “Even when journalists have had hooks on which to hang the story of diminished physical standards and their deleterious effects on readiness and morale, they have shown little interest,” McGowan notes. The Navy’s first female pilot assigned to combat duty died in a training accident in October of 1994. The press ran with the Navy’s initial public statement blaming the crash on engine failure, and was quick to silence anyone who might question lowered training standards for women. When the Navy later debunked the engine-failure excuse, few—and no one in the mainstream national press—were on the case. “Even when an important story crops up, such as the sex scandals at the Army’s Aberdeen training grounds,” McGowan writes, “the media is reluctant to grasp the larger implications for gender integration.”
Coloring the News has become all the more important since September 11. Consider, for example, the media treatment of immigration. Immigrants, and the broken system that allowed some of the September 11 terrorists to legally live in the United States, have long been untouchable in America’s newsrooms. “Measures designed to enhance diversity in newsroom staffing and coverage have made journalism much more sensitive to the concerns of a huge wave of new, nonwhite Americans and have given the news reporting process greater access to, and sympathy for, these groups than ever before,” McGowan writes. “But sensitivity and access have often been purchased at the expense of rigor, and a thick coat of piety and cant has often obscured plain truths. . . . Rather than engage in a full and frank examination of immigration, news organizations have been too ready to follow a romantic script that exaggerates its benefits and ignores its downsides.”
After September 11, McGowan wrote on National Review Online (November 8),
Viewing the issue of immigration largely through rose-colored, ideological glasses, the press has long given minimal attention to the many holes in the state and federal immigration net. Though September 11 has indeed spurred much of the media to better immigration reporting, there is still considerable evidence of a politically correct mindset—one largely reflected in the new solicitude toward Muslim and Arab immigrants and the place of Islam in a multicultural America.
Broken immigration policies and practices allowed terrorists to make it into the country and operate below the radar. Although hindsight may make it easy to point fingers, there were plenty of signs—and great news hooks—long before September 11. McGowan’s book is full of them.
Take, for example, the tighter visa-screening procedures that were supposed to be implemented after the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Each year, ten million people apply for visas, and about seven million are granted. Included in the approved visas in recent years: nine of the September 11 hijackers. Even before the disaster this fall, wouldn’t this have made a great follow-up, watchdog story? Consular officers have not had access to FBI criminal databases, and they typically tread lightly for fear of offending their respective host countries by denying too many applications. In fact, in many cases, as McGowan has written elsewhere, much of the daily visa work is actually performed by non-American nationals working in embassies. This is the case, in fact, in the American embassy in Saudi Arabia, from where fifteen of the successful hijackers hailed. Imagine the impact a New York Times investigation would have had. But alas, the Times, like the rest of the major media, simply wouldn’t—and won’t—touch it.
There were plenty of other juicy stories that the media just never cared to pursue. There’s the Advance Passenger InformationSystem, for instance. For a decade, U.S. officials have asked foreign airlines to provide advance access to their passenger lists for planes coming into the United States. Although 94 airlines around the world saw fit to cooperate, Egypt Air and Saudi Arabian Airlines have long refused to. Surely, one segment of the many Dateline programs would not have been too much to ask for.
In Coloring the News, McGowan writes, “Much of the American public has the sense that news organizations have a view of reality at odds with their own and that reporting and commentary come from some kind of parallel universe.” On one hand, there has never been a time in our twenty-four-hour-news-cycle world when Americans have needed to be able to trust the media as much as they do now. On the other hand, if the media keep maintaining their alternate reality, they may distort themselves into extinction, as Americans increasingly obtain their news on the Internet, on their Palm Pilots, via satellite, and by cell phone. Once we’ve all officially moved beyond Geraldo live from Afghanistan and the Times’s front-page editorials, we will have the likes of Bernard Goldberg and William McGowan to thank.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is an associate editor of National Review and editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com).
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