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Reporting Two Killings

By E. R. Shipp

Sunday, November 14, 1999; Page B06

By the time Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998 -- nearly a week after he was savagely beaten and left "tied to a fence like a dead coyote," as The Post reported on Oct. 10, 1998 -- his story had spread around the world, and he had become a symbol for those who urged Congress to adopt a stronger federal hate crimes law. From Capitol Hill to Hollywood to college campuses across the nation, the assault on an openly gay man was denounced at rallies and candlelight vigils. And in editorial pages, including The Post's. Since the first front-page story, "Gay Man Near Death After Beating, Burning," this newspaper has carried about 80 items -- including news briefs, editorials and columns -- that have referred to Shepard.

I recount this because some readers, prodded by commentators who are hostile to homosexuals and to what they view as a "liberal" press, have inquired why the Shepard case garnered so much attention while another case involving homosexuals -- as possible predators rather than as victims -- has been all but ignored. There is an explanation for the absence of coverage of the brutal rape and asphyxiation death of 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising, but those who are inclined to believe the David Dukes, Joseph Farahs and Tim Grahams of the world -- who have asserted that the story has been suppressed so that homosexuals won't be portrayed negatively -- will not be satisfied.

Start with how The Post handles crime news. "Our policy is not to cover murders from out of the Washington area at all unless it's a case of mass murder or has caused a large local sensation or has raised a larger social issue," said Jackson Diehl, the assistant managing editor for national news. The Shepard story was news, he said, because it "prompted debate on hate crimes and the degree to which there is still intolerance of gay people in this country. It was much more than a murder story for us." More "routine" crimes may be ignored or limited to news briefs culled from wire services. The story of the Sept. 26 death of Jesse Dirkhising in Rogers, Ark., and the arrest of two male suspects, wasn't transmitted on the Associated Press's national news wires until Oct. 29. The Post, considering this a "routine" story, carried a news brief on Oct. 30. "There are rapes and murders all over the country all the time," Diehl said. In 1998, for instance, there were some 17,000 murders and 93,000 rapes, according to the FBI, and few became national news.

One might reasonably disagree with the standard Diehl articulates and question its application to the Dirkhising story. After all, a child was terribly brutalized. Indeed, the AP's deputy managing editor for national news, Mike Silverman, acknowledges that the AP blew it by failing to get the story on the national wires for more than a month. Silverman, who is based in New York, said he did not know about it until the Washington Times called last month for an Oct. 22 story: "Media tune out torture death of Arkansas boy." He then assigned his Little Rock staff to do a story for the national wires because this "wasn't a routinely awful crime; it was out of the ordinary."

For a variety of reasons, some people insist upon depicting the Shepard and Dirkhising slayings as equivalent. Here at The Post, however, the two are seen as quite different. A hate crime homicide such as Shepard's and, four months before that, James Byrd's in Jasper, Tex., is, "a special kind of killing," The Post has editorialized. "It tells a segment of American society that its physical safety is at risk." Arkansas authorities have not characterized the Dirkhising death as a hate crime. Matthew Shepard's death sparked public expressions of outrage that themselves became news. That Jesse Dirkhising's death has not done so to date is hardly the fault of The Washington Post.

You may reach me at ombudsman@washpost.com or (202) 334-7582.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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