Right-Wing Media And The Return Of Matthew Shepard Trutherism

Stephen Jimenez
Right-wing media outlets are already celebrating a forthcoming book that claims that brutal 1998 murder of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard - which became a rallying cry for LGBT activists - was actually fueled more by drug use than anti-gay bias.

In The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard, journalist Stephen Jimenez argues that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson bludgeoned Shepard in a meth-fueled rage. Jimenez minimizes the role of anti-gay bias in the murder, writing that Shepard and McKinney had previously had sex and done meth together (an assertion that McKinney himself denies). 

Although his report of a sexual history between Shepard and McKinney is new, Jimenez's central thesis - that drugs were the motivating factor in Shepard's murder - has been called into question before.

In November 2004, Jimenez co-produced a piece on the Shepard murder for ABC News' 20/20.  GLAAD highlighted key shortcomings in 20/20's report, including the lack of hard evidence that drugs were a factor and its failure to point out that McKinney himself had cited ant-gay bias as a central element in the case, even attempting to employ a “gay panic” defense at trial. Shepard's mother also condemned the report, criticizing its selective reading of evidence and accusing ABC of taking her comments out of context.

The 20/20 report neglected to mention another crucial detail: that Jimenez was a friend of Tim Newcomb, Henderson's defense attorney

Most disturbingly, email correspondence revealed that the Jimenez had already decided that Shepard's murder wasn't an anti-gay hate crime before 20/20 even started its reporting. As Gay City News reported in December 2004:

Roughly two months before reporting began for a “20/20” piece on the Matthew Shepard killing, [Stephen Jimenez,] the freelance producer who sold the story to the ABC program had decided that methamphetamine motivated the murder and not anti-gay bias.

And barely two months into a six-month span of reporting on the piece, a “20/20” producer wrote in an e-mail that the "'hate crime' motivation of Shepard's death" was a “flawed theory.”

Sean Maloney, a senior attorney at Willkie, Farr and Gallagher who represents the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said of “20/20”'s apparent prejudgment of the story, "This strikes us as bad journalism. There is a significant body of evidence that says that anti-gay bias played a role in Matt's death."

The November 26 story said that Aaron McKinney who, along with Russell Henderson, murdered Shepard on October 6, 1998 was fueled by meth. [emphasis added]

Ten years after he'd already made up his mind, Jimenez is publishing his book.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation has already condemned Jimenez's theory, telling the Huffington Post:

Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law. We do not respond to innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories. Instead we recommit ourselves to honoring Matthew's memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it.

Nevertheless, right-wing media outlets have already jumped on Jimenez's theory to claim that the problem of anti-LGBT hate crimes has been exaggerated.

WND columnist Jack Cashill gloated that the book undermines the efforts of the “gay grievance industry” to draw attention to hate crimes. The Shepard case, Cashill wrote, highlights how the LGBT movement's “coordination and ... duplicity” have promoted the false narrative that anti-LGBT violence is actually a problem.

Austin Ruse - who in July celebrated Russia's brutal crackdown on LGBT people - took to Breitbart.com to blast “Matthew Shepard Inc.” for promoting the “lie” that homophobia had anything to do with Shepard's murder. PJ Media's Ed Driscoll touted Ruse's report on the book, asserting that Shepard's death had been “politicize[d]” by a “paranoid” left desperate to advance the hate crime narrative. A guest blogger on Gateway Pundit echoed Driscoll's argument, writing that Jimenez's book “cast[s] a terrible light on a media that has long been anxious to build a narrative hostile to mainstream America.”

Even sources outside the right-wing media have been taken by Jimenez and his argument. Writing for The Jewish Daily Forward, Kenneth S. Stern - an attorney and gay rights supporter who discloses that he and Jimenez went to high school together - calls the theory promoted by The Book of Matt “compelling.” Stern made no note of the problems that plagued Jimenez's earlier work for 20/20.

Amid the debate sparked by Jimenez's book, it's critical not to lose sight of the reality of anti-LGBT hate crimes. According to FBI figures, there were an estimated 1,300 hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Even in parts of the country considered LGBT-friendly, anti-LGBT violence is a pervasive - even worsening - problem. New York City, for instance, is on track to see a doubling of anti-LGBT hate crimes by the end of 2013. These are figures that hate crime denialists and Matthew Shepard truthers can't dispute.