Is Dharun Ravi a Hate Crime Victim?

left""I remember an NLGJA conference session about the coverage of crime.  A number of journalists and PR people were talking about how we cover crime-especially crimes against LGBT people–and the comment was made about how important it was for the families of crime victims to have good media representation to get their story out.  I recall, being a bit of a cynic, leaning over to a friend and saying, “maybe the problem with crime coverage is not the journalism, but that victims have media representatives.”

That memory was sparked by a Reuters story about the reaction by some gay and lesbian activists and journalists to the sentencing of Dharun Ravi, who was convicted of hate crimes after the suicide of his Rutgers University roommate Tyler Clementi.

While not charged with causing Clementi’s death, Ravi was vilified for gay bullying and has since been convicted of hate crimes for targeting Clementi and invading his privacy because he was gay.

Ravi, 20, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison at his sentencing hearing on Monday in Middlesex County Superior Court in New Jersey. He could also be deported to his native India.

But what had once seemed to be a clear-cut case of gay bullying gave way to a more complicated story, revealed during Ravi’s criminal trial earlier this year. The incident triggered mixed feelings among gay commentators. Many are calling on the court to give Ravi probation instead of prison time.

One gay writer said he was encouraged that harassment against gay men and women was being taken more seriously, but concerned that Ravi may have been used as a scapegoat for Clementi’s suicide.

The article notes that Out magazine’s Aaron Hicklin, Andrew Sullivan, E.J. Graff, and Dan Savage have all raised concerns that Ravi is being over-sentenced and that the jury verdict may have been the product of overzealous prosecution.

The journalism question, however, is whether the media itself helped create the environment that led to Ravi’s sentencing–whether one believes he was overcharged or not. The Clementi suicide was an instant cause celebre in both the mainstream press and the LGBT press. His suicide was used as a symbol of the problem of bullying of LGBT people. I know that when I first heard about Clementi’s death and the media coverage of what it symbolized and said about his roommate Ravi, I had a very clear sense of what happened and how awful the bullying was.

Then I read Ian Parker’s New Yorker piece and suddenly the story wasn’t at all clear. Like all good journalism, Parker challenged many of my assumptions about what happened in that residence hall room, what Tyler Clementi’s life was like as a gay college student, and what Dharun Ravi was like as a college student in 2011. That piece, and the subsequent trial, raised a lot of questions about how the media had described the bullying of Clementi and what Ravi was like as the alleged perpetrator of a “hate crime.”

Now, Dharun Ravi–like Tyler Clementi–has had some great public relations assistance.  The aftermath of the trial demonstrates some keen publicity strategy in changing the perception of Ravi just as Clementi’s death was framed by some keen activist and public relations strategy. It’s hard to imagine what it was like before crime victims and alleged criminals had public relations machines shaping the news stories about high-profile incidents.

But was the media too quick in its judgment about what really happened to Tyler Clementi?  Is the media being too quick, now, in buying the media narrative that Ravi is also something of a victim?  For journalists, especially LGBT journalists, is there a lesson here in how we view bullying and the current activist narrative about bullying? What are your thoughts?


Poynter Questions the GLAAD Commentator Project

It’s difficult for some journalists, especially LGBT journalists, to figure out how they feel about the GLAAD Commentator Accountability Project. While it has been praised by some, it has raised concerns from others.  Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute–who focuses on ethics and has appeared at NLGJA conferences–takes a look at the project and raises questions about the purpose and impact.

  • Of course, the danger is that journalists will use lists like this in the same way they would use a black list. If GLAAD is sincere about its intentions, the organization could add a short, instructional paragraph to the site, offering up some ideas about the best way to use the database. Because there is a range of egregiousness, such language would be helpful to journalists and to citizens who might come to the site looking for more information about a voice they heard. GLAAD also might include names of people who do “accurately represent the ‘other side’ of those issues,” as they say these commentators do not.

McBride questions whether the comments of some of the people on the GLAAD list have really committed what GLAAD considers “hate speech” and suggests that journalists and bookers may come away uncertain about why someone shouldn’t be interviewed or interviewed without being viewed as an expert.

She quotes GlAAD’s Aaron McQuade in describing the purpose of the list, and defending the criticism that it isn’t a blacklist.

If you are going to offer vile, hateful rhetoric in one forum, then show up on MSNBC as a scholarly expert, we want the audience to know the full context of who you are,” he said. And he hopes that anchors and reporters will challenge such commentators on things they say in other forums.

McBride’s column comes as GLAAD announces that the National Organization for Marriage and Pat Robertson have been added to their list of questionable commentators.  NOM’s sin, of course, is the release of internal documents outlining the group’s political strategy that included exploiting hostility between the gay community and African Americans, as well as Latinos. But the inclusion of NOM raises the inevitable question: if GLAAD thinks journalists should be suspicious of the largest, most well-funded anti-SSM group in the country, who does GLAAD think journalists SHOULD call to balance out pro-SSM activists and commentators?

This is questions we’ve wrestled with before, when it came to the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group designations.  While clearly they are fringe groups on the SPLC list–and there are fringe people on the GLAAD list–there are also many people on both lists who have significant constituencies and a track record of significant support from the public.  So how do you exile such people from your coverage?  Should you?

Maggie Gallagher is rather fearless in her willingness to debate anyone and talk to any media.  But she’s also not a fringe voice or someone without a significant constituency.  It’s difficult to imagine any better advocate for the anti-SSM position than Gallagher if you are trying to book a guest or get a quote.  So why shouldn’t be considered credible and interviewed?  She’s said some crazy stuff, but so have some pro-SSM activists who are routinely interviewed.  Her group has put out some controversial statements and taken some unsavory positions, but so have groups that support SSM and gay rights.

This leaves journalists in a real jam. I agree that journalists should ask hard questions and commentators should be called on controversial statements. But is creating a list of suspect commentators really the answer?

Death by Newspaper: The Murder of David Kato

From Box Turtle Bulletin

The facts are horrowing. LGBT advocate David Kato Kisulle was murdered in Kampala, Uganda Jan. 26 after he successfully obtained a permanent injunction against the tabloid “Rolling Stone” for featuring his picture under the caption “Hang Them.” He was one of 100 gay men pictured in the paper.

The story is beginning to get significant press coverage in the United States, which has been often inconsistent in the coverage of anti-LGBT threats and political actions in Uganda.

The go-to source for information on Uganda–and now the death of Kato–is the blog Box Turtle Bulletin which features the reporting of Jim Burroway and Timothy Kincaid.

LGBT Ugandans have lived under a menacing atmosphere for more than a decade. The anti-gay hysteria has increased significantly since the introduction of the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Bill into parliament in 2009. That bill, which remains under review Parliamentary committee, would impose the death penalty on LGBT Ugandans under certain circumstances and criminalize all advocacy by or on behalf of LGBT people. It would also criminalize even knowing someone who is gay if that person fails to report their LGBT loved one to police within 24 hours. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for February 18, and the bill is expected to be considered after Parliament returns for a lame-duck session before the new Parliament begins in May.

This horrendous murder adds to the fears that LGBT Ugandans regularly face over their safety. Brenda Namigadde, a lesbian asylum seeker in the U.K. has been threatened with deportation back to Uganda. Just yesterday, she received an ominous message from M.P. David Bahati, the author of the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, in which he said that Brenda must “repent or reform” when she returns home

What’s striking about BTB’s coverage–which includes the exhaustive Slouching Towards Kampala: Uganda’s Deadly Embrace of Hate–is the seriousness that have in approaching their work. Here is Burroway’s assessment of whether he was the first to post the news:

Actually, I’m not sure if technically I was the first to post it. I had first learned about it about five hours before I posted it, but was waiting for confirmation of key information. In the beginning, there were a lot of rumors and unconfirmed reports swirling around. Some of them turned out to be false. but most of it tragically true. But it was important to wait for clarity because if I had gone with what I had heard earlier, the story would have had a very different arc and may have contained some false and inflamatory “facts.”

So waiting is always prudent if you’re not sure. I was mindful of the beheading hoax, as well as the false reports in the early going of the Tucson shooting that Rep. Giffords had died.

So I think Warren Throckmorton and Human Rights Watch technically broke this ahead of me, but not by very much. Just a few minutes. I think we were all prudent to post only when we each felt confident that we had confirmed facts to report.

Burroway was speaking about the July incident where there were well-sourced leads that beheadings had taken place in Uganda, only to later find out that the story was false.

The coverage of the anti-gay efforts in Uganda has been led by gay bloggers at BTB and–in a pairing worthy of a movie–evangelical scholar Warren Throckmorton whose relationship with the LGBT community is strained, at best. Whatever one thinks of Throckmorton’s approach to therapy for gays and transgender people, few have doubted his commitment to the Uganda story as both a chronicler and a critic.

In addition to BTB and Throckmorton, Huffington Post has done some very strong coverage of the death of David Kato featuring analysis and opinion pieces by Frank Schaeffer and Emma Ruby-Sachs.

Now, the question is how the story will be told in the traditional press.  The New York Times has a story from a correspondent in Kenya and the Associated Press also has extensive coverage from Uganda. CNN has an excellent story by David McKenzie.

We will continue to follow the coverage.

Is there a Double Standard: Reporting on the BB Shooters’ Religion

Did LGBT bloggers–and the mainstream press–purposely refuse to report on the religious and ethnic backgrounds of the cousins accused of shooting gay men in San Francisco with a BB gun because the cousins had Muslim-sounding last names?

That’s the accusation made last week by Bruce Carroll at Andrew Breitbart’s conservative media watchdog blog Big Journalism.

Imagine, if you will, that the BB gun attackers had been white. Or from Utah. Or from Texas.  Or Laramie, Wyoming. What kind of wild adjectives would have been applied? We can only surmise. Editorializing against mainstream Americans who are now out-of-favor by the media (whites, Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, conservatives) happens everyday on America’s front pages and network news programs. But when it comes to Arab/Muslim attackers — all silence is golden for the American media.

Predictably, the gay media outlets and left-wing bloggers continued their head-in-sand approach in the reporting of this Muslim-on-gay violence in America’s homo mecca. The leading gay magazine in America, the Advocate, is silent about the identity or motives of the men aside from their names. Again, one can only imagine if these were “Christianists” on an anti-gay BB gun field trip to San Francisco.

The silence of the Muslim angle is also deafening by left-wing gay bloggers Towleroad, JoeMyGod. But at least they took notice. No such luck over at Pam’s House Blend and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. You would think Sullivan, who once claimed to recognize the threat to gays by Islamic radicals, would have picked up on the story. Nope. Andrew must not have heard about the incident. Convenient.

The conservative blogosphere is having a field day with evidence that the mainstream press and progressive blogosphere has an alleged double-standard when it comes to reporting on the religion and ethnicity of alleged hate crime perpetrators. That reaction got a response from Evan Hurt at TruthWinsOut that somehow turned into an anti-Christian rant.

There has been some reporting on the Muslim-angle to the story. KTVU reported the alleged motivation, saying “the men are Muslim and prosecutors have evidence they may have committed the alleged acts because they believe homosexuality is against their religion.”

The best handling of the dispute was by Kilian Melloy of EdgeBoston who reported the allegations made by FreeRepublic then actually interviewed some people about how Muslims view homosexuality.

A tenet of the Muslim religion as interpreted by some Islamic scholars is that active homosexuals should be put to death. This interpretation of Islamic scripture has been called into question by openly gay Canadian scholar Junaid Junaid Bin Jahangir, a 31-year-old Dubai-born émigré who says that the Qu’ran condemns sexual assault–but not loving relationships.

Openly gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma has also contested the idea that gays are condemned. His film, A Jihad for Love, argues that the true “holy war” is the one waged within oneself as part of a search for truth.

But others see the Islamic religion as intractably anti-gay. U.K.-based Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary, whose past sermons have included warning Muslims to “protect” their families from Christmas or face “hellfire,” told the media last year that the religion prescribes death by stoning not only for sexually active gays, but also for heterosexual adulterers. Choudary indicated that being gay was not in itself sinful, saying, “If a man likes another man, it can happen, but if you go on to fulfill your desire, if it is proved, then there is a punishment to follow.” However, the cleric said, “You don’t stone to death unless there are four eyewitnesses. It is a very stringent procedure.” Choudhury then compared gay intimacy to bestiality, saying, “There are some people who are attracted to donkeys, but that does not mean it is right.”

So what does it all mean? Responsible journalism requires some good reason to report on the religion and ethnicity of the alleged perpetrator, especially if it is seen as a motive. But isn’t the DA’s quote in the March 12 KTVU story the kind of hook that reporters could use to discuss the religion of the alleged perpetrators? It seems so.

The desire to not stigmatize Muslims is understandable and the press has often done an awful job of reporting on Muslims who are alleged perpetrators in crimes.  The rush to assume religion played a role in why someone committed a crime–the early reporting on the Ft. Hood shootings comes to mind–has often led to problematic journalism.

Is the alleged religious motivation of the accused perpetrators news? Would the religion be newsworthy if they alleged perpetrators were Mormon or Evangelicals? Would the ethnicity or race be newsworthy if the alleged perpetrators were White?

And what about the progressive blogosphere, that often needs little reason to go on anti-Christian rants? Why was religion avoided when discussing this hate crime when Christianity is often bandied about when placing blame in other situations? How often is the term “Christianist” or “Jeebus” found in LGBT and progressive blogs, yet there is no mention of a possible Islam-fueled reason for these shootings?

When reading anti-Islam websites and the conservative press, I often ask myself whether the writer would have said the same thing about the motivations of a  Christian.  But is there a parallel argument in the progressive press and blogosphere when it comes to motivations?

In Defense of Crime Reporters

There may be no more difficult–or harrowing–job in the newsroom than being a crime reporter, covering the murders in a large metropolitan area. You are at the mercy of the police reports, families don’t want to talk, and the 24-hour news cycle, even at a newspaper, demands you get information out quickly.

So what do you do when the police report identifies the victim of a murder in an area known for prostitution, drug deals, and homeless camps as a man, but says the victim also went by a woman’s name?  That was the dilemma faced by reporters in Houston reporting on the murder of Myra Chanel Ical. Here’s how the Advocate summarized the controversy over how Ical’s murder was covered.

The half-naked body of a 51-year-old trans woman was found last week in a vacant lot in the Montrose area of Houston, Texas. But reports of Myra Ical’s death have been salacious at best, with mainstream media referring to Myra as a man, saying the area where her body was found was known by police to be frequented by prostitutes and drug users.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Ruben Dario Ical “also went by the name of Myra Chanel Ical” and that “he had numerous bruises and defensive wounds, as if he had struggled against his attacker.”

The coverage of Ical’s murder has resulted in a letter, sent by local gay activist Meghan Stabler, decrying the coverage as “lazy and irresponsible journalism” caused by “ignorance about transgender issues that is rampant among far too many reporters despite the existence of resources to help them report accurately.”

But was it? If you look at the Chronicle‘s story, they basically took information from the Houston Police Department report.  How the police department came to identify Ical as Ruben Dario Ical, who also used the name Myra, is unclear.  Was it based on driver’s license?  Fingerprints?  We don’t really know.

I emailed the folks at the Houston Press, an alternative weekly in Houston, who run a blog Bayou Body Count which covers murders in Houston, including Ical’s. The Press initially identified Ical as a man–based on information from the police department–but then changed the pronouns in the story once more information was known and criticism mounted.

The editor explained that the blog gets its news from HPD and, unless there is something striking about the murder, they just report on what is available from the police department.  Murder is not a unique happening in Houston, like many cities, and the blog can report on multiple murders a day.

To the Press‘ credit, they changed their story once more information was available and after conversations in the newsroom.  That’s they way these kinds of things are supposed to happen. And, arguably, they local press was in a Catch-22 on covering the murder to begin with since they were reporting based on police information.

The situation reminds me of a previous post about the murder of three transgender Native Americans in Albuquerque, N.M. and figuring out the proper way to describe the victims. There was a need for more reporting and greater sensitivity, but the situation was complex to figure out.

Before we can criticize the immediate reporting of the story, we need to know why the police identified Ical the way they did.  Did the reporters know what gender Ical identified as in public? The NLGJA stylebook says, “[w]hen writing about a transgender person, use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with the way the individual lives publicly.” But how do you find that out for a murder victim?  What if no family is talking?  What if you need to get the story out before you can verify how the victim lived publicly?  These aren’t easy problems to solve.

The obvious answer is more reporting.  And when new information is available, as the Press did, change the story to reflect that new information. In a story today about a candle light vigil, the Chronicle avoids using pronouns, but calls the victim Myra Chanel Ical. KHOU has done a follow-up story which also describes Ical as a woman.

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