Jesse Dirkhishing was a 13-year-old boy living in Rogers, Arkansas, who in 1999 hooked up with two homosexual men named Davis Carpenter and Joshua Brown. Maybe, possibly, he agreed to engage in sex games with them, but matters soon went far out of control. First, Jesse was wholly immobilized: He was drugged, and tied up with rope and duct tape. Then, for a long, agonizing night, he was subjected to every form of rape and sodomy his tormentors could devise. When they had finished with their new pornographic toy, Brown and Carpenter left him to die from suffocation.

There are echoes here of another young man tortured and left to die, though we certainly have heard of that case. I am referring to Matthew Shepard, left to die on a fence in Wyoming in 1998. The difference between the two cases is, of course, the matter of celebrity. In death, Matthew Shepard became a worldwide martyr for gay rights, the subject of numerous television news specials and movies, and the case provoked general heart-searching about anti-gay hate crimes. Matthew’s death, you see, was typical of how homosexuals are treated by an evil and prejudiced world. Jesse Dirkhising, on the other hand, was a total embarrassment for the media, because the event totally contradicted the required stereotypes. The case showed homosexuals as brutal killers, reviving the old linkages between homosexuality and pederasty, child molestation, and sadomasochism. One could easily object that Jesse’s killers were in no sense representative of gay men—and they certainly are not. They are in fact about as representative of homosexuals as Matthew Shepard’s killers were of the heterosexual population, but that statement is politically inconvenient for a mass media in search of a good rhetorical message. Matthew Shepard became a national icon, a contemporary Christ, while Jesse Dirkhising became a nonevent, an absence, an unperson.

To give credit where it is due, a number of writers have bitterly complained about the relative treatment of the two cases; Jeff Jacoby did a magnificent expose in Jewish World Review. Most critics, predictably, come from the right, which makes it all the more necessary to highlight one major exception. Writing in the New Republic (April 2), Andrew Sullivan analyzed the media coverage of the two cases, and noted that, in the single month following their respective deaths, Matthew Shepard was the subject of roughly 65 news stories to every one covering Jesse Dirkhising. Sullivan, a homosexual, was harshly frank about the reasons for the disparity: “The Shepard ease was hyped for political reasons: to build support for inclusion of homosexuals in a federal hate-crimes law. The Dirkhising case was ignored for political reasons: squeamishness about reporting a story that could feed anti-gay prejudice.” There could hardly be a better illustration of how our news media work, cynically selecting stories on the basis of how far their implications mesh with liberal prejudices about polities, race, and sexuality.

Perhaps Chronicles readers might like to help with a project I am currently undertaking, namely, to list the topics least likely to be taken up as cause-of-the-week TV movies. Let me start you off with a couple of examples: How about That Every Woman Be Armed—A story of a teenage girl from a gun-owning family. In the first half of the film, we see her being mocked and stigmatized by anti-gun fanatics, including teachers at her high school; she is vindicated, however, when she drives off a gang of would-be rapists who break into her house. By the conclusion, the anti-gun activists are forced to admit their mistake. In the closing frame, the girl meets her liberal teacher in the gun store as he is investing in his first revolver. Their eyes meet, and they smile. Or we could propose Slings and Arrows—the story of a gutsy journalist who tries to expose the criminal financial enterprises operated under cover of a local civil-rights organization, and whose career is nearly destroyed by bogus charges of racism. Or, just maybe, how about Jesse’s Tale—the story of a young boy murdered by sadistic pederasts? No, I’m sorry even to have suggested it; that would be simply too ludicrous.