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The ass-kicking Frank Rich skewers the 20/20 Matthew Shepard piece, Freepers

Thank god for the NYT’s Frank Rich. He’s telling it like it is regarding the awful piece by Elizabeth Vargas on 20/20 about Matthew Shepard’s not-a-hate-crime killing.

A creepier example of the shift toward red news could also be found last weekend when ABC’s prime-time magazine show “20/20” aired an hourlong “investigation” into the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in the red state of Wyoming. “20/20” added little except hyperventilation to previous revisionist accounts of the story, most notably JoAnn Wypijewski’s 1999 Harper’s article filling in the role crystal meth might have played in driving the crime. But ABC had obtained the first TV interviews with the killers and seemed determined to rehabilitate their images along the way. The reporter, Elizabeth Vargas, told us that while the pair had been “variously portrayed in press reports as ‘rednecks’ and ‘trailer trash,’ ” they were actually just all-American everymen with “steady jobs, steady girlfriends and classically troubled backgrounds.” Aaron McKinney, the killer who beat Shepard into an unrecognizable pulp, wasn’t even challenged on camera when he said he had “gay friends” (none of whom were produced or persuavely vouched for by ABC) and that he had only invoked a homophobic “gay panic” defense in his trial because that’s what the lawyers told him to do. What’s not to like about the guy?

As chance would have it, this episode of “20/20” ran opposite the special “Dateline NBC” farewell to Mr. Brokaw. There could hardly be a more dramatic illustration of the changing of the tone, as well as of the guard, in network news.

Rich’s column, which is about the state of news journalism, also gets in some great licks about the horrible treatment NBC reporter Kevin Sites has been getting by the Freepers (including death threats) for covering the story of the Marine shooting the wounded Iraqi in a mosque.

Mr. Sites is an embedded journalist currently in the employ of NBC News. To NBC’s credit, it ran Mr. Sites’s mid-November report, on a newscast in which Mr. Williams was then subbing for Mr. Brokaw, and handled it in exemplary fashion. Mr. Sites avoided any snap judgment pending the Marines’ own investigation of the shooting, cautioning that a war zone is “rife with uncertainty and confusion.” But loud voices in red America, especially on blogs, wanted him silenced anyway. On right-wing sites like Mr. Sites was branded an “anti-war activist” (which he is not), a traitor and an “enemy combatant.” Mr. Sites’s own blog, touted by Mr. Williams on the air, was full of messages from the relatives of marines profusely thanking the cameraman for bringing them news of their sons in Iraq. That communal message board has since been shut down because of the death threats by other Americans against Mr. Sites.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding