Despite the advent of the new media and the information age, some things haven't when it comes to stories that attract--and hold--the attention of reporters. Sex scandals, missing person cases and murders still sell, and the press (typically) spares no effort to give us the latest, sordid details. Remember the Duke lacrosse case? Three young men were practically tried and convicted by a calculating prosecutor, race-baiting "activists" and a truth-challenged victim until public outrage prompted an independent investigation that cleared the players.
Before the Duke case, there was the sensational tale of Natalie Holloway, the Alabama teen who disappeared during a senior class trip to Aruba. Fox News' Greta van Susteren practically took up residence on the island, offering non-stop coverage of the search for Ms. Holloway, who--presumably--was the victim of foul play. Ms. Holloway's body has never been found, but the case (and its breathless coverage) has been forever ingrained into our public consciousness. Ask anyone who watched cable news that summer and they can probably name at least one of the suspects implicated in Holloway's disappearance. By comparison, 21% of the nation's college students recently indicated that the First Amendment guarantees our right to drive a car.
We can argue all day about misplaced priorities in media coverage, the education system and our popular culture, but the inescapable fact remains: we are fascinated by stories about death, disappearance and mayhem, while more important matters are relegated to the back of the bus. In fact, it's sometimes noteworthy when a particularly violent or lurid case doesn't attract national attention, because that speaks volumes about our society as well.
Such a case is currently playing out in the justice system of Knoxville, Tennessee. In January of this year, a 21-year-old University of Tennessee student, Channon Christian, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Christopher Newsom, were raped, tortured and killed. It was, by all accounts, a brutal and horrific crime. A recent AP report--which focuses primarily on the lack of media attention from national outlets--provides an outline of what happened to the couple:
Christian and Newsom were last seen Jan. 6. Authorities have refused to say where they were carjacked and have suggested the attack was random.
Newsom's burned body was found the next day along some railroad tracks, and Christian's body was found two days later a short distance away in a trash can. Both had been sexually assaulted.
Web sites describe gruesome details that are not in the public record.
Four defendants have been arrested and face numerous charges in connection with the slaying. A fifth defendant is being held on federal charges related to the crime:
Lemaricus Davidson, 25; his brother, Letalvis Cobbins, 24; and George Thomas, 24, were indicted on 46 counts, including first-degree murder. Cobbins' former girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 18, was indicted on 40 counts, also including murder. Some have implicated others in statements to police, but it remains unclear what prompted the crimes...A fifth defendant, Eric Boyd, 34, is being held on a federal charge of being an accessory after the fact for allegedly helping Davidson. No state charges have been filed against him.
The AP and Knoxville news outlets have covered the Christian-Newsom murders at length since they occurred, but the case has attracted virtually no attention outside east Tennessee. Certainly, Ms. van Susteren hasn't set up shop outside the local courthouse, or assembled her panel to discuss the legal aspects of the case, which will go to trial next year.
And that lack of coverage begs an obvious question, particularly in a society that can't seem to get its fill of sensational murder cases. Why is the national media taking a pass on the savage murders of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom?
Could it be the fact that the victims were white, and the accused killers are black?
That's the allegation making the rounds in the blogosphere. Actually, I think there's a slightly different (but related) explanation for the lack of media interest, as suggested by Ted Gest. He's the president of a group of journalists who cover crime, court and prison beats. According to Mr. Gest:
"As bad as this crime is, the apparent absence of any interest group involvement or any other 'angle' might also explain the lack of coverage."
And there you have it. To my knowledge, neither Al Sharpton nor Jesse Jackson has made a trip to Knoxville, to demand justice for Channon Christian and Chris Newsom. Nor, have the same activists convicted these defendants in the court of public opinion, as they did with the Duke lacrosse players. At the local level, a spokesman for the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP said his group has been meeting with city and police officials, taking a low-key approach. "We don't want to add fuel to the fire. Our goal is simply to keep the peace," he said. Would the group adopt a similar stance if the races of the victims and the suspects had been reversed? So far, no one has apparently bothered to ask that question.
Regrettably, the lack of national media interest in the Christian-Newsom murders tells us a great deal about the current state of American journalism. Some issues--including black-on-white crime--are seemingly too hot to handle. And for cases that cross the racial divide, national news outlets are often content to follow the "activists," and let them establish the coverage template. You may remember that early reporting out of Durham suggested that three young white men had brutally raped a black woman, a charge endorsed by Revs. Jackson and Sharpton. Only later did we learn that the truth was very different from the activists' accusations, and the carefully-timed media leaks from Mike Nifong's office. When the Duke players were finally cleared, Jesse and Al were nowhere to be found (surprise, surprise).
As for what happened in Knoxville, the evidence offered so far seems both convincing and clear. Based on what we've been told, it seems doubtful that the Knoxville case will result in the stunning reversal we saw in Durham. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and predict that all of the defendants will be found guilty, with some copping a plea deal to avoid the death penalty. That's the way our justice system works, for better or worse.
It's also clear that the Knoxville murders will never receive the attention devoted to the Duke case. And that's a damning indictment of our national media, which finds some story angles a tad inconvenient, particularly when their favorite spokesmen aren't around to help frame the coverage.
Glenn Reynolds, who lives and works in Knoxville, says he has seen no evidence to suggest that the killings were a hate crime. While I will defer to his judgment in that area, it doesn't diminish the gravity of the murders. Certainly the brutal slaying of two young people in Knoxville deserves the same attention as the search for missing women in Georgia and Illinois, and the hunt for a young British girl, apparently abducted during a vacation trip to Portugal. These stories have dominated certain cable news shows in recent weeks--the same programs that have ignored Channon Christian and Chris Newsom.
ADDENDUM: John Leo, Michelle Malkin, LaShawn Barber and Flopping Aces (among others) are also on the case. Ms. Malkin already sees parallels between the Knoxville murders and two other cases, the almost-forgotten Wichita Massacre (another black-on-white rampage that left four dead in 2000), and the tragic murder of Jesse Dirkhising in 1999. Dirkhising, a 13-year-old Arkansas boy, was raped and murdered by two homosexual men during a marathon torture session.
In his New York Sun column, John Leo notes the obvious contradiction between coverage of the Dirkhising case--which received virtually no attention outside Arkansas--and the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was murdered in Wyoming. Shepard's death attracted national attention, and prompted passage of hate crimes legislation. But then again, Shepard's murder fit the MSM template of widespread bigotry and hatred toward gays; the case of two pedophiles sodomizing and murdering an innocent boy represented--in the words of a Time commentary--"nothing but the depravity of two sick men." John Leo captures the hypocrisy of that argument well: "Shepard's death advanced a cause we [the MSM] care about, and the Dirkhising death didn't.
Sadly, the same rule seems to apply (at least so far) to the coverage of the Christian-Newsom murder case.