From the beginning, reporters covering the murder of Lawrence King have had difficulty in finding the right tone and delivery. Few stories are more challenging than that of a 14 year old boy shooting his schoolmate in the back of the head at point blank range in the middle of his classroom.
Two young lives have been destroyed. Lawrence King is dead, and Brandon McInerney will spend much of his life behind bars. And reporters have sought to make that point rather than just tell the tale of a murderer and his victim. Sadly, this effort has evolved in some media from telling both stories to a cover-up of the facts and a retelling in which King was the culprit and McInerney an innocent who defended himself in the only way he knew how.
I will concede that it is difficult for a reporter to tell the victim’s side of the story. While defense lawyers invariable seek to influence public opinion (and a jury pool) with press conferences full of alternative possibilities, prosecutors are generally more circumspect. And while Ventura County senior deputy district attorney Maeve Fox did finally release information about McInerney to counter the defense’s fairy tale, it is not her job to defend King’s reputation.
That role is often filled by family of the victim. But Lawrence King’s adoptive parents were estranged and more interested in trying to find a way to make a buck off of King’s murder. They had no interest in defending the reputation of the weird kid who had “never bonded with them” and whom had been shipped off to a youth facility. Which leaves no one – no one at all – speaking for Lawrence.
But that is no excuse for shoddy journalism, deceptive reporting, and homophobic insinuation.
Perhaps the worst example was the hit piece on Lawrence King penned by Ramin Setoodah, a celebrity interviewer, for Newsweek. Setoodeh’s piece was the first to characterizate King as a bully and sexual aggressor who tormented Brandon McInerney. Parroting McInerney’s attorneys, Setoodeh laid out the gay panic defense, tossing in stereotypes and insinuations and “a lesbian vice principal with a political agenda.”
But while Newsweek’s article was unforgivable, one expects that hard news media will avoid such tactics. So it is even more disturbing to see the LA Times join in on the character assassination of Lawrence King.
But today’s article by Catherine Saillant about the start of the trial does just that. It seeks to minimize Brandon McInerney’s crime by diminishing the value of the life of his victim. Saillant does not see one child shooting another in the back of the head in his classroom but rather a sexual abuse victim acting in self defense against a sexual aggressor, a tormentor, a homosexual menace.
I don’t claim that Saillant has an anti-gay bias. Her use of the somewhat ominous phrase “young homosexuals on school campuses” instead of “gay youth” may be accidental or out of ignorance. For all I know, she is an ardent supporter of equality.
But her article is a textbook example of journalistic gay panic: the presumption that heterosexuals are entitled to live a life free of gay people, and that a gay person acknowledging their own existence is such a threat to heterosexuals that it justifies murder (or, at least, is a mitigating circumstance).
In the presumptions of journalistic gay panic, it is relevant to their murder whether a child was or was not effeminate or sometimes wore “women’s accessories”. In the presumptions of journalistic gay panic, the flirtations of a girl to a boy are very very different from the flirtations of a boy to a boy.
Take this paragraph from the article:
Fellow students say the two had clashed for days over King’s expressing his attraction to McInerney. King, who was living in a children’s shelter because of problems at home, had recently gone to school wearing eye makeup and women’s accessories.
The first sentence is a false presentation of the issue. “Fellow students” may have said just about anything, but based on the fuller coverage we know that King had been picked on by McInerny for a long time, long before the “flirting” began, and this eventually became his way of fighting back. But Saillant presents this as though it was out of the blue. She sets up King as the unprovoked aggressor.
And this cannot be chalked up to a lack of information. In a February 2009 Times article written by Saillant herself:
“Witnesses said King was usually not the aggressor. But after months of teasing by McInerney and other male students who called him “faggot,” he had began to retort, according to prosecutors.”
But it is in the second sentence that Saillant steps from being a reporter of a one-sided version of the story to active manipulator. Here she introduces an irrelevant comment to tie two separate ideas together. She’s reporting (not repeating what “fellow students” say) that King went to school in makeup. And – without any reason to mention it – she also says he was “living in a children’s shelter because of problems at home.”
Tying the two unrelated comments into a single sentence, Saillant has achieved the presentation of King who was so out of control with his crazy cross-dressing that he couldn’t even get along with his parents.
But the worst was just previous:
…provoked by King’s repeated sexual advances.
Screech… slam on the brakes.
Ask yourself – outside of this case, just in conversation – when you hear the term “repeated sexual advances”, what do you think of? Is is, oh say, “Will you be my valentine?”
Or is it perhaps an advance that is sexual in nature and repeated?
And again, this is not unfamiliar territory to Saillant. From that 2009 article:
In her statement of facts, Fox contends that King and McInerney had an acrimonious relationship for months prior to the shooting. They sparred with “typical 8th grade, back-and-forth insults; some sexual, some not,” she wrote.
But today, those “back and forth insults, some sexual, some not,” have become one-way “repeated sexual advances”. If Saillant is going to just parrot the accusations of McInerney’s defense, she has an obligation to inform that King’s “advances” consisted of flirting, at most, and did not consist of acts of adult sexual aggression. On the other hand, King’s “death” consisted of death.
This is not journalistic balance. This is advocacy for the defense’s gay panic strategy.
And look at how McInerney is discussed:
The defense could face a challenge in portraying McInerney as a naive youth. At the time of the shooting, he looked young and sweet-faced. In court recently, the defendant was a tall, lanky young man dressed in crisp Oxford shirts and khaki pants.
Salliant doesn’t talk about the difficulty of his defense having to deal with Nazi materials, racist symbols, or McInerney’s long history of terrorizing King. No, no, it’s his current age that is a problem.
I don’t know Saillant’s motivations. It may be that she is among those who think 14 is too young to be tried for murder. Maybe she wants to look at “all the circumstances” and see McInerney as “a victim too”. Perhaps wants to “present both sides”.
And the easiest way to do that – as McInerney is a pretty nasty neo-Nazi with white supremacist connections who ran in a pack of bullies – is to paint King as some sort of monster, a horrifying gay drag queen monster – worse even than McInerney. Besides, who is going to complain?
Generally character assassination of the victim is left to the defense team. But it seems to me that Saillant, has joined the cause.
Now, there is a legitimate case to be made that McInerney was too young and immature to be fully cognizant of the consequences of his actions. But it is unethical and immoral to take the shortcut of bashing King to exonerate McInerney.