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It was a smear -- 20/20 on Matthew Shepard

Friday, November 26, 2004

It was about what I expected. We were treated by 20/20's Elizabeth Vargas spending the first half hour of the program describing the emotionally and physically abusive childhoods of McKinney and Henderson, even to the point of showing how McKinney was an Eagle Scout. It was just meth that made him go out of control, beating Matthew with a 357 Magnum until he was a bloody pulp for the $30 in Shepard's wallet. Henderson comes off as practically an altar boy, that "didn't even touch Matthew" aside from tying up the helpless young man to the fence. I guess that doesn't count. And he made no attempt to call for help because he was afraid of McKinney's meth-fueled fury.



Vargas interviews several people that say McKinney was bisexual, wasn't homophobic and knew Shepard long before that night. McKinney denies having sex with men, or ever having met Shepard prior to the night he killed him. A great deal of time is spent with a specialist describing violence and meth addiction, but not one minute is spent talking to anyone about McKinney's obvious internal conflicts about his sexuality. Also, many of these interviewees that support the theory that McKinney is bisexual have some serious credibility problems of their own -- like having lied or not come forward with information at the time of the murder. After the piece you are left with more questions than answers, but it is clear from the outset that the goal is to "prove" it was not a hate crime, no matter how much of the other information equally muddies the waters.

And, we had Andrew Sullivan, ostensibly as the "official gay voice" of the piece. He didn't add anything substantial, but it was a sorry sight to see him add legitimacy to this carefully edited slam piece. It did the job it intended to do, which was to say "this is not a hate crime" (no matter how many other issues this retelling raises).

Vargas also speculates that Shepard might have been HIV+, depressed and on drugs -- subliminally making it easier for some in the audience to justify that he was already going to die and that this was some kind of mercy killing. Before you think that's preposterous, think again. My brother's girlfriend, a professor at a university in Texas, had to deal with a devoutly religious student that wrote in a paper after viewing "The Laramie Project," that she truly believed that Shepard was a wretched and depraved human being and that what happened to him was a merciful act of God.

There are more like her out there and stories like this just fuel the growing fundamentalist intolerance. It also shows the increasingly sensationalistic and intellectually bankrupt "mainstream journalism" at work.

Earlier posts here, here, and here.

UPDATE (6:30 PM): I've been to Freeperland, and here are some choice comments.

UPDATE 2 (7:40 PM): Here is the statement by from Judy and Dennis Shepard about the show's selective treatment of the "facts".
On November 26, 2004, 20/20 will air a piece that promised 'new information and facts' about Matt's beating and subsequent death. Dennis and I reviewed an advance copy of the show and were dismayed and saddened by the tabloid nature of the show, its lack of serious reporting of facts in evidence, and the amateurish nature of asking leading questions to the people who were interviewed.

I, too, was asked by 20/20 for an interview and agreed to do so to ensure that all of the facts were correctly stated. My only stipulation was that our legal advisor Sean Maloney, Matthew Shepard Foundation Board member and former senior White House staffer, had to be included in the interview to share his legal knowledge and expertise regarding Matthew's murder. He was quite eloquent in stating the facts pertaining to Matt's case, his knowledge of hate crimes in general, and in debunking 20/20's attempt to rewrite history. As you may or may not know, Sean was deleted from the interview entirely. The editing by 20/20 of my interview seems to leave out all of my relevant comments regarding the potential bias of the show and my deliberate restating of the facts of the case clearly ended up on the cutting room floor. My remarks were reduced to a few very personal maternal comments taken out of context to make it appear as if I agreed with 20/20's theories. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

This same subjective editing occurred with Dave O'Malley's interview. Dave, a Captain with the City of Laramie police force at the time, was Laramie's lead investigator in the case and worked in tandem with Rob DeBree, the lead investigator for the Albany County Sheriff's Department, to bring the case to trial and to provide the evidence necessary to convict both Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. (Both law enforcement officers are in complete agreement with the facts as stated during the trials.)

Dave gave Ms. Vargas a detailed account of the case. He described the elements of hate and gay bias that were found during the extensive investigation and were substantiated in the large body of evidence collected for this case. Dave's comments were severely edited. Perhaps they were left out because he did not give Ms. Vargas the answer(s) she needed to maintain her 'new' theory concerning the murder>. One of the most glaring omissions in the piece was the transcript of Aaron McKinney's in-custody interview which took place a few days after the murder. This occurred before any 'line of defense' had been established by legal counsel for the two defendants. Had that document been included, it would have shown an un-rehearsed and unemotional anti-gay account of the events before, during, and after leaving Matt tied to the fence.

Despite their promotional efforts to the contrary, 20/20 has not presented a 'new' theory. Much of this information was included in a Harpers Magazine cover story in 1999. What is new is the unfortunate downslide of a reputable news magazine show when its highly respected host retires. 20/20 has sacrificed years of professional journalistic ethics and values for a stab at revisionist history ... and ratings.


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11 Comments:
  • [intellectually bankrupt]

    I think we should call these people "morally bankrupt" also.

    The 20/20 piece was pretty insubstantial, but it created an atmosphere of doubt. That's enough to satisfy the bigots. Andrew Sullivan is a prick for cooperating with this.

    By Blogesota, at 1:51 PM  
  • Thanks for your efforts in covering this - I found the link to your site on Americablog, and I'm surprised they haven't covered it more on their site. The program was so much worse than I might have imagined in the pre-show build-up - among so many failings and outrages (people should also read the statement from Judy Shepard on matthewshepard.org) was the continued use thruout the show to the "myth" and "legend" of the Matthew Shepard murder, terms used only to de-legitimize the murder, and it's impact and meaning.

    I hope everyone who reads your blog will join in and protest the show - along with the recent Washington Post ad supplement, they are just two examples of the so-called liberal media seeming to re-build their anti-gay, "red-state" credentials, and gain credence with the forces that push the anti-gay agenda and elected Bush on Nov. 2nd.

    Thanks again for the coverage you've given to this issue.

    By Anonymous, at 2:27 PM  
  • http://www.gopspotlight.com/comics/comic11262004.png

    By Patrick ONeill, at 5:02 PM  
  • Thanks, folks for stopping by to comment. I just could not believe the slanted coverage. I certainly can accept that those events unfolded differently from what was initially thought, but the 20/20 piece went out of its way to promote the "no hate crime" theory that it overlooked some of the very facts that they uncovered and presented that suggest McKinney at the very least is ambivalent about his identity. They could have explored the role that played in this by speaking with experts in the field -- it was purposefully avoided.

    By Pam, at 5:24 PM  
  • Pam - Thanks for your great coverage of this. I debated for a long time whether I should watch the show or not, and finally decided I just couldn't bear it. I appreciate your recap, especially the inclusion of Matthew's parents' response.

    Honestly, I highly doubt 20/20's ridiculous smear job will change anyone's opinion about what happened that night and why, which makes it even more mind-boggling that they chose to air it at all.

    By Shakespeare's Sister, at 11:02 AM  
  • You seem to dismiss the evidence that 20/20 presented without considering it thoroughly. I understand that you have probably suffered discrimination in your life for being a lesbian, but you have to understand that the evidence presented has some merit to it, so you may want to reconsider. Yes, the show left "more questions than answers," but your lecture against 20/20 seemed to glaze over the facts presented. Perhaps you need to release your anger and resentment that has swelled up inside from the ignorance and stupidity of others regarding your sexuality and look at the matter more objectively: there is a strong possibility that Matthew Shepard was not killed because he was gay. At least consider it before releasing your anger against homophobes by saying that "it must be true."

    As an aside, hate crimes are a bad idea, because murder, rape, assault, etc. against another human being is already a hate crime. It's a hate crime against humanity. Punishing one for his internal thoughts is nothing more than mind control, or a shortcut to 'changing' (though you really don't 'change' people, only make the homophobes hate the gay rights movement even more by forcefully punishing them for their thoughts) public opinion of homosexuals by ramming your view of tolerance down their throat.

    That all said, of course gays shouldn't be discriminated against, the American culture should be more accepting of gays, etc. But it is also a two-way street: if one is an evangelical and believes in a literal reading of the Bible, they shouldn't be sent to prison for their religious beliefs (there are numerous references against homosexuality and sodomy in the Bible). As an agnostic, I think they aren't the brightest people on the planet, but I don't think I have a right to forcefully imprison them for believing that homosexuality is wrong. You may want to extend the same tolerance to evangelical Christians that you want homophobes to extend to homosexuals.

    By Anonymous, at 7:22 PM  
  • great blog

    better minds than mine believe this is a carefully orchestrated plot to help fule the anti gay policies that are coming our way.

    stay tuned....

    namaste

    By sean808080, at 8:47 PM  
  • Anonymous (7:22 PM), I didn't dismiss the facts presented in the 20/20 piece, I have serious problems with the fact that what was presented (meaning there was obviously stuff left on the digital "cutting room floor"), was put together to prove the theory that it was not a hate crime. As presented, it could be interpreted that way. On the other hand, it's also easy to see that, if Vargas had pursued more deeply the obvious conflicted sexuality of McKinney (based on those new interviews she's relying upon) that you may end up back where you started -- a possible hate crime, only it stems from McKinney's self-loathing, not a gay panic issue. Vargas chose not to pursue that angle, because it didn't fit with the conclusion she wished to present.

    By Pam, at 9:03 PM  
  • I think the point of the 20/20 special was to be a counter-balance against what has now become the conventional wisdom: that Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay. It's not fair journalism to only give one side, and I think that 20/20 was trying to show a different perspective on the story. The media as a whole did significant reporting on the story at the time of the murder, and the notion that Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay was never questioned. If you think that 20/20 was unfair, you may want to look at all of the media coverage at the time of Matthew Shepard's murder that did not even bother to actually investigate whether he really was killed because he was gay.

    By Anonymous, at 10:06 PM  
  • I think the point of the 20/20 special was to be a counter-balance against what has now become the conventional wisdom: that Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay. It's not fair journalism to only give one side, and I think that 20/20 was trying to show a different perspective on the story. The media as a whole did significant reporting on the story at the time of the murder, and the notion that Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay was never questioned. If you think that 20/20 was unfair, you may want to look at all of the media coverage at the time of Matthew Shepard's murder that did not even bother to actually investigate whether he really was killed because he was gay. In other words: why did the media accept so easily the notion that Shepard was murdered because he was gay? Was it because they were biased and reported what they wanted to believe? "Reporting what they wanted to believe" seems to be the exact criticism you are leveling at 20/20...

    By Anonymous, at 10:14 PM  
  • I think your comment about the media coverage at the time of Shepard's murder says more about the laziness of the news media than anything. It's amazing how much all of them get wrong on all kinds of stories. This is a pet peeve of mine, and doesn't let those reporters (or Vargas) off the hook.

    I think the media are not fact-checking or doing real investigative work on the whole anymore. It's a pack/profit mentality. I've been interviewed/profiled a couple of times in local media and they made dumb mistakes that could easily been corrected before going to print/on air.

    By Pam, at 10:16 PM  

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