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Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2001 / 10 Shevat, 5761

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Consumer Reports

TV focuses on one 'hate crime,' forgets another --
WHAT explains the media's ongoing and extraordinary fascination with the murder of college student Matthew Shepard?

On Jan. 10, MTV aired Anatomy of a Hate Crime - the first of three scheduled network specials (the others will appear on NBC and HBO) about the brutal death Oct. 6, 1998, of the gay University of Wyoming freshman.

Why should his killing absorb the popular culture so much more than the 30,000 other murder victims we've buried since his death?

Shepard's killing closely resembled the random violence that explodes every day somewhere in this country: He was beaten with a pistol in the course of a robbery, then tied to a fence in freezing temperatures. His murderers also came across as depressingly typical - losers and drug abusers with long criminal records.

Despite the fact that MTV followed its broadcast of the movie about Shepard's death with 17 hours of special programming promoting new hate-crimes legislation, the film itself remained honest enough to leave open the major question about the murder: Why does it deserve the "hate crime" designation in the first place?

Shepard's two killers belonged to no groups dedicated to persecuting homosexuals, nor had they established a pattern of anti-gay violence. On the same night they robbed and beat Matthew, they also brutally attacked two young Mexican-Americans, neither of whom was gay. It's true that after their arrest, the murderers briefly floated the idea of a "gay panic" defense - claiming that Shepard made sexual overtures to them, and they lost control. The MTV movie rightly ignored such accounts, widely rejected by legal authorities and journalists who investigated the case.

On what basis, then, does the killing represent a hate crime? The two impoverished and sullen killers might have resented the well-dressed Shepard's apparent wealth and his free spending at the bar where they met. They also might have targeted him because of his diminutive size; Matthew stood 5 foot, 2 inches and weighed only 105 pounds.

The entire debate on why two predators selected Shepard illustrates the stupidity behind current and prospective hate-crime laws. What difference does it make if they killed him because they hated gay people, or rich people, or short people, or all of the above? The unfortunate young man is just as dead, and even without hate-crimes laws in Wyoming, the two killers got double life sentences.

Wyoming's well-deserved tough-on-crime reputation didn't deter the two murderers from their evil deed, so how could a new hate-crimes statute have done so - or added to their ultimate lifelong punishment?

A comparison with the James Byrd murder in Jasper, Texas, shows the nakedly manipulative intent in the media focus on Shepard. No one questions that racial hatred motivated Byrd's three murderers, and that the depraved nature of the crime, with Byrd dragged to his death behind a pickup truck, exceeded even the viciousness behind Shepard's death.

Nonetheless, the Byrd killing has hardly inspired three different television movies from the powers that be in Hollywood.

On one level, the emphasis on Shepard may reflect the fact that gay executives wield more power in the entertainment industry than do African-Americans. On the other hand, there's also an uncomfortable political difference: As a victim of hatred based on his race rather than his sexual orientation, Byrd already was covered by federal and Texas hate-crimes statutes - although prosecutors didn't need to use such laws to get the death penalty for two of the three killers.

In other words, the Byrd case could hardly lend itself to arguments for expanded hate-crimes laws because the dead man had already been "protected" by such legislation - altogether ineffectively, it turns out.

Like all crime victims, the kind and gentle Matthew Shepard deserves our sympathy. But the sad story of his death also deserves better than its awkward and endless media exploitation to advance a cultural and political agenda.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . He also participated as a conspicuously successful competitor on The GE College Bowl in 1968 on NBC. You may contact him by clicking here.


'01/10/00: Temptation Island' critics miss boat
10/06/00: Hollywood's contempt for its audience
09/29/00: Remember love and marriage?
09/01/00: Should our next president be a 'Survivor' or a 'Millionaire'?
07/18/00: Why Hollywood still embraces Lieberman
07/13/00: 'Peeping Tom TV' exploits loneliness
06/30/00: Why we love quiz-show geeks
06/14/00: Homosexual establishment is more upset by substantive challenges than savage language
05/19/00: Macho Military Makes Comeback
05/02/00: Hollywood battles addiction to addiction movies
04/18/00: Film Makes Keeping the Faith Irrelevant
04/12/00: Key lessons from 1960 for 2000 presidential campaign
03/21/00: Oscars: Will Hollywood do its duty or follow its heart?
03/03/00: Family friendly video versions would provide choice, not censorship
02/18/00: Hollywood votes for liberalism (SURPRISE!) in the Oscar nomination primary
01/26/00: Who is more "Twisted," Rocker or his heavy metal critics?
12/23/99: Media century began with unity but ends with isolation
12/15/99:The "battle in Seattle" as a '60's flashback --- only on the surface
12/01/99: Delusion and denial
11/16/99: Good reason for chaotic state of American values
11/03/99: Religion is unfairly blamed for the world's wars
10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
08/25/99: NAACP attacks the wrong TV target
08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

© 2000, Michael Medved