Editor's Note: Peter DelVecchio is a practicing attorney and free lance writer living with his partner in West Hollywood. He reports regularly for IN Los Angeles magazine and Frontiers, and occasionally for The Advocate. DelVecchio is also active in the fight against crystal meth, and manages a meth column that appears in each issue of IN.
A preliminary hearing in the Lawrence King murder case is set for Sept. 23 in Ventura Superior Court to assess if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. Fourteen-year-old Brandon McInerney has been charged as an adult with premeditated murder with a special hate crime allegation for allegedly shooting the 15-year-old, openly-gay King in the head in an Oxnard classroom last February.
While the LGBT press has been following the case closely, the most extensive mainstream media coverage to date was a July 28 Newsweek magazine cover story, "Young, Gay and Murdered," that ignited a firestorm in the LGBT community. Many felt the article held King responsible for his own murder.
Ramin Setoodeh, the Newsweek general editor who wrote the piece, LGBT groups and individuals he consulted, people in Oxnard directly involved in the case and others were interviewed for this piece to ventilate the controversy and provide some perspective.
First, though, a cautionary note: Anyone wishing to assess the Newsweek article should read it for him or herself--it has many flavors. It opens, for example, with a lurid description of King, "decked out in women's accessories," his hair "slick[ed] up . . . in a Prince-like bouffant," fingernails "hot pink," "glitter or white foundation on his cheeks," "chasing the boys around the school" in "a pair of stilettos" from Target, "teetering as he ran."
But it also recites such facts as "[o]ne study found that the average age when kids self-identify as gay has tumbled to 13.4," that "middle school staffs are almost never trained in handling kids who question their sexuality," and that "[m]ore than 3,600 high schools sponsor gay-straight alliances . . ., but only 110 middle schools have them."
"You're reading along and you think, 'now we're going to get some substantive reporting,' and then there's some pockets in the article that are not congruent," Caitlin Ryan, San Francisco State University clinical social worker, director of the Family Acceptance Project and co-author of Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling, said in a telephone interview. Setoodeh consulted with Ryan on the piece.
The Newsweek LGBT sources interviewed were uniformly dismayed by the piece, believing it represented King as being responsible for his own murder. Ryan referred to a "tone of blaming the victim," (a charge she leveled against media handling of violence against LGBT youth generally).
The Newsweek article "was framed in a way . . . that justifies violent action by people that is in line with the gay panic defense argument," said Cathy Renna, managing partner of Renna Communications, a public interest communications firm focusing on LGBT issues.
"It was very close to blaming the victim . . .," said Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national education organization focused on safe schools.
Openly-lesbian California State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), author of California's Omnibus Hate Crimes Act of 2004 and the Student Civil Rights Act, said she thought the article "leaned toward blaming Larry for his own death." Kuehl had no involvement in the Newsweek piece, but has been following the case since the murder occurred in her district.
Cindi Creager, Director of National News for GLAAD, acknowledged that "many in the LGBT community felt that the story veered toward blaming the victim." But, based on her prior work with Setoodeh, Creager said she was convinced that this was "not at all the intent of the story." She did say she was "disappointed," however, that Newsweek had not consulted GLAAD on the piece.
One line in the article drew particularly heavy fire from Newsweek's LGBT sources: "Larry King was . . . a troubled child who flaunted his sexuality and wielded it like a weapon--it was often his first line of defense."
"My jaw hit the floor when I saw that phrase," Jennings said. "No one says this anymore. No reputable outlet uses the term flaunting his sexuality."
Ryan said she was "distressed" by the line.
Kuehl said she saw a "parallel" with "the infamous case in Italy, where a woman was found not to have been raped because she was wearing jeans," adding, "When someone wears clothes of any stripe and they're straight, you don't see anybody saying they flaunted their heterosexuality."
Setoodeh, who asked to be interviewed by email rather than over the phone, citing scheduling issues, denied "blaming the victim." "I don't think our story does that," he wrote. "Larry had a difficult life. It would be unfair to write a story about him without acknowledging all the things that he went through, and the different ways in which he had to fight back."
As for the "flaunted his sexuality" line, Setoodeh pointed out that the sentence ends with, "It was often his first line of defense," and added, "That idea is key. Larry was using his sexuality to defend himself from other boys at school."
Kuehl, however, rejected this explanation. "I think the choice of every word in the sentence indicates the attitude of the writer," she said. "And for the Newsweek reporter to use the word 'flaunt' indicates his attitude about whether or not it is appropriate to dress . . . the way you see your own identity. So, however you continue the sentence and however you parse it, I don't think the writer is being totally up front with us."
Another factor GLSEN claimed contributed to the piece's perceived "blame the victim" tone was that Newsweek detailed King's alleged harassment of McInerney, but, according to Daryl Presgraves, GLSEN's Media Relations Manager, "never mentioned that Brandon McInerney had been bullying Lawrence King." "All the media accounts that came out right [after the murder] expressed this sentiment," Presgraves said, which meant that "however Lawrence King reacted to [McInerney] had something to do with his response to being bullied."
The same issue appears in a GLAAD memo that lists concerns Creager raised with Newsweek. "Little focus," the memo states, "is placed on Brandon McInerney's own aggressive tendencies--instead Larry's behavior is scrutinized and the students and teachers being socially unequipped to 'deal with' Larry is accepted at face value."
Setoodeh did not respond to this criticism directly. "If you were to spend a lot of time with the students at E.O. Green, they would tell you that they hardly saw Larry and Brandon together," he wrote.
Setoodeh wrote that he "originally planned on writing a story about how difficult it is for young teenagers to come out of the closet in middle school. In the early reporting for that story, Larry was murdered. I went to Oxnard to cover what had happened, and I soon saw how complicated his story was. We decided to focus on Larry, knowing that his story would have broader implications about the challenges and difficulties any student faces who is openly gay in middle school."
Newsweek's LGBT sources, however, do not believe the article provided enough contextual information about "the challenges and difficulties" of LGBT school kids, despite their having provided Setoodeh with relevant data.
The Family Acceptance Project's Ryan said she spoke with Setoodeh about "the earlier ages of coming out, the developmental issues for LGBT young people, the need for support" and aspects of her work with families with LGBT adolescents. GLSEN referred Setoodeh to its survey, "From Teasing to Torment," with specific page references, according to Presgraves.
Communications expert Renna said she "worked very closely" with Setoodeh "in providing him some sources, particularly around current research relating to the average age of coming out being lower and lower."
Very little information regarding the plight of LGBT kids in schools, however, appears in the Newsweek article. "To devote that much space, and not include some kind of contextual analysis from experts who can talk about kids who are non-gender-conforming, or why kids are coming out younger and younger, and what we can do about that, that's the part that was really missing," said Renna.
"There was a failure to put this in the larger context, which we supplied in detail, about how harassment of LGBT students is routine in school, about how intervention is very rare," GLSEN's Jennings said.
"When someone writes an article and there were so many details of what happened . . . a writer couldn't put in all of the contextual information," Ryan said. "But I was really surprised that there were no quotes from LGBT organizations like GLSEN, that deal with school victimization directly."
Responding to this perceived dearth of contextual information, Setoodeh wrote, "We included the number of gay-straight alliances in middle schools and high schools, as well as quotes from teenagers who came out of the closet in middle school. GLSEN's bullying numbers were several years old, I think. But the larger point I'd like to make is, we were examining Larry's story, and we provided enormous context for what happened."
Presgraves, however, said that GLSEN's 2005 statistics are still valid.
With respect to not quoting LGBT leaders, Setoodeh responded, "Our story was about Larry and Brandon and the school they attended, not that of gay rights leaders. There was no reason to include their quotes in the story."
Newsweek's failure to consult more closely with the LGBT community, however, led to at least one crucial misimpression. The article says that King's father was "resentful that the gay community has appropriated his son's murder as part of a larger cause." Setoodeh said that "Larry's mom declined to be interviewed" for his piece.
But GLSEN's Presgraves said, "We actually spoke to the mother about the Day of Silence [for King] and what our intentions were, and [she] was very supportive of that, and thankful that we were trying to find a way to bring attention to what happened to Larry to make sure that this didn't happen to other young people."
Renna suggests the Newsweek article might be an example of how "the realities of modern corporate journalism . . . can really foster less accurate coverage, more sensationalized coverage, and the kind of coverage that I don't think is as helpful in doing the job of journalism, which is telling stories and presenting people with accurate and unsensationalized information to make decisions about something that's happened."
Setoodeh, however, points to "the deep context and nuance we brought to this story."
The lawyers on both sides of the King murder case also weighed in on the Newsweek piece. Senior Deputy District Attorney Maeve Fox, who is prosecuting the case against McInerney, faulted Newsweek for what she says are numerous factual inaccuracies. Setoodeh "ran a bunch of facts that appear in that article by me," Fox said in a July telephone interview, "and I told him, 'I can't confirm any of that stuff because that is not the information that we're getting.'" Fox declined to identify the alleged inaccuracies.
Hueneme School District Superintendent Jerry Dannenberg seconded Fox's charges, saying in a telephone interview, "I think she's right on." But Dannenberg also said he thought "the reporter attempted to be fair."
"We conducted a five month investigation into Larry's death," Setoodeh responded, "and I think it's possible that we had more information than [Fox] did after our lengthy examination of the case. Every single fact that was reported in the story was checked extensively."
Fox also scolded Newsweek for relying on anonymous sources. "A lot of the things that those people say in that article are going to disappear when and if they're ever called to the stand," she said. "A lot of that stuff, I believe, based on the information that we have, and the interviews that we have done [of] people who are actually going to stick their neck out and testify, a lot of that stuff never happened."
To this, Setoodeh responded, "After Larry died, the teachers at his school were instructed not to talk to the press because the district feared a lawsuit, so they could only do so anonymously. We weighed the use of anonymous sources very carefully and whenever possible tried to corroborate through multiple sources what they told us before using the information."
McInerney's lawyer, Senior Deputy Public Defender William Quest, said in a July telephone interview, "I think [Newsweek] definitely . . . did a good job in getting what we believe was going on at the school."
The actual facts of the case will start to emerge at the preliminary hearing.