Playing the Media
The first wave of the attack came swift and strong. Jonah Goldberg, in his column titled "When the Show is on the Other Foot" in the National Review wrote on October 25:
"Who is Jesse Dirkhising? Well, you wouldn't know it from the press, but he was a thirteen-year-old Arkansas boy who was horribly raped and tortured over a two-day period about a month ago. He was tied up by two homosexual "lovers" who stuffed Jesse's mouth with his own underwear, wrapped the gag with duct tape, tied him to the bed, and then repeatedly sodomized him in various ways. The boy eventually died from asphyxiation while the murderers were making a sandwich in the kitchen."
Great beginning, and then Goldberg gets to his point: "Where is the outrage we had over Matthew Shepard? Indeed, why does the horrible murder of one gay man warrant thousands of hours of news and millions of gallons of ink while the snuffing of this child by two gay men warrants a few local wire reports and the angry shouts of a few radio hosts? It seems clear that, at least at some level, the media doesn't want to report on this story because the perpetrators are gay. If this had been two white men with a black child; if this had been two straight men torturing a gay teen; if this had been Christians brutalizing a Jewish kid..."
Before we go any further Goldberg's basic premise is wrong. The story was well reported in news outlets across the country, albeit as a local murder. It has never been established that the men accused are "homosexual" never mind lovers, and since there has been no trial no one has been convicted; one of the men claims not to have even been at home at the time. So Goldberg's inflammatory language and charges are a smokescreen for other not-so-hidden agendas.
On the face of it Goldberg's column was a plea for "fair" news coverage - if homosexual "victims" get front page publicity, why not homosexual "perpetrators." Of, course on the most simplistic and obvious level Goldberg's basic contention is just plain out wrong: Andrew Cunanan and Jeffrey Dahmer are now household words. But that is not really his point, and Goldberg is aiming at larger targets. By juxtaposing Dirkhising's murder with Shepard's he is attempting to undercut the attention that the later has drawn to homophobic violence in our society. Clearly Matthew Shephard's murder galvanized a national discussion about anti-gay violence in a way that no other case had up until that point.
Of course the irony here is that Goldberg is attempting to draw attention to violence against children committed by homosexuals, when the reality is that, overwhelming, this is committed by heterosexuals within the confines of the biological or extended family. But because the mythos of the gay man as child molester is so entrenched in the popular imagination Goldberg can easily draw upon it. Equally ironic is his use of the image "if this had been Christians brutalizing a Jewish kid..." for it calls up -- in reversal -- the centuries old charge of Jews ritually killing and sexually mutilating Christian children.
How effective has Goldberg's attack on gay media visibility been? His first strike led to several waves of commentary and subsequent attacks. Both Time and The Washington Post have felt obliged to write long editorials on why they did not cover the Dirkhising murder in depth. Both pieces were thoughtful, informative, and nuanced but neither reached, or convinced, the conservative readership at whom Goldberg's original piece was aimed. Other conservative columnists have repeated Goldberg's charges - a syndicated newspaper column by Brent Bozell was subtitled "In contrast to the well-covered Matthew Shepard tragedy, this brutal child-slaying by gays got the silent treatment." Other right-wing columnists have written similar pieces. The Washington Times has run repeated stories, and the story has been well-featured on most conservative talk radio shows. The Dirkhising case has become a cause celebre for conservative letter writers who - at the urging of the columnists - have deluged newspapers and magazines with letters and e-mails demanding to know why the story of Dirkhising's death has been suppressed by the liberal media. (Apparently it is now homosexuals, not Jews who own the media.)
In essence, Goldberg's column was an organizing tool giving conservatives a hot-ticket issue around which they could attack the mainstream media for its "liberal bias" while simultaneously attacking the idea of homosexuals as "victims" and promoting the concept of gay men as murderous child molesters. The Jesse Dirkhising story has no lasting and startling political content - alas, children and teens are murdered all the time to hardly much notice at all - but as a rallying call for a conservative, anti-gay, and anti-progressive agenda it has been quite effective. It has been six weeks since Goldberg's article appeared and the story continues to grow. Weekly more and more newspapers across the country are printing letters from people demanding to know why there has been a "blackout" on the story, or even editorials about why the correlations between Dirkhising and Shepard are false. Goldberg's instinct was to transform the Dirkhising story from a local news story of murder into a media event with important political overtones -- and so far it is working.