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It was a smear — 20/20 on Matthew Shepard

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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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding