Rehashing Matthew Shepard

Openly gay ABC News media relations vice president Jeffrey Schneider defends last month’s 20/20 report questioning whether Shepard’s murder was a hate crime. The report’s dependence on dubious sources outraged many viewers, including Shepard’s mother, Judy. “I think we did a good job,” Schneider says.

BY Patrick Letellier

December 30 2004 1:00 AM ET

Immediately following a recent episode of the ABC News program 20/20, which looked into “new revelations” about the 1998 killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., many gay rights leaders and journalists denounced the report. Even some who agreed to be interviewed for the show—including Shepard’s mother, Judy; former Laramie police chief Dave O’Malley, the detective who investigated the murder; and Rob DeBree, the lead investigator on the case for the Albany County Sheriff’s Department—disagreed with the show’s repeated insistence that the killing may not have been a hate crime.In fact, O’Malley told the Laramie Boomerang that 20/20’s producers had decided on their focus for the program even before completing their reporting, accidentally leaving on his dining room table copies of e-mails discussing “their preconceived focus that this was not a hate crime. This was a drug crime.”The November 26 program, reporter Elizabeth Vargas said on-camera, was an attempt to “set the record straight on a story that has been dramatically oversimplified” by exposing an important “backstory” about the murder, namely that Shepard was not the target of a homophobic hate crime but was instead the victim of an attack fueled by the crystal meth-induced rage of one of his killers, Aaron McKinney. McKinney and his accomplice, Russell Henderson, are each serving double life sentences for killing Shepard. Both men made statements after their arrest and during McKinney’s trial that antigay bias was a primary motive in the killing. McKinney went so far as to invoke the nefarious “gay panic” defense, claiming that Shepard came on to him, which humiliated and enraged him and led to his explosive violence.In the prison interviews around which the 20/20 show was constructed—the killers’ first since being sentenced—the two men denied that homophobia played any role in the crime. In addition to presenting the murderers’ spin, ABC relied on interviews with a number of former drug addicts and previously unknown “friends”--whose credibility is not challenged--as well as truncated interviews with Judy Shepard and O’Malley. The 20/20 program did not mention that McKinney had promised Judy and Dennis Shepard never to speak to the media about his crime. Nor did Vargas bother to report the reason the killers wanted to publicize their new version of events: Henderson is pursuing a federal appeal to have his sentence reduced, an appeal that would have a better chance if he were accomplice to a drug-fueled robbery gone wrong rather than a hate crime.Despite the fresh interview sources, nothing in the report was new, gay activists familiar with the case argued, and the producers failed to include important follow-up questions. One example: After a young woman said she “partied” with both Shepard and McKinney one evening in a limo owned by Shepard acquaintance Doc O’Connor—who was a principal subject of the 20/20 report—Vargas failed to ask O’Connor on-camera whether the incident ever happened.The Advocate’s Patrick Lettellier spoke to Jeffrey Schneider, the openly gay vice president of media relations for ABC News, about the show and the outrage it has generated.

You have said that “new revelations” were the impetus for this report. What were they?
That there were other motives possibly at play that terrible night and we thought that was worthy of further investigation. One of the motivating factors our piece centered on was the use of methamphetamine.

But that’s not new. The use of crystal meth by Matthew Shepard’s killers was discussed in the press at the time of his trial.
I don’t believe that’s true. Well, I think there was a magazine article that had been written about that.

Yes, a lengthy piece in Harpers. So it’s not a new revelation.
The prevailing wisdom on this case had been that it was a hate crime. ABC News’s reporting leads us to a possibly different conclusion. Frankly, the irresponsible thing is to have new evidence presented and do nothing with it. The responsible thing, especially having done so many reports on Matthew Shepard, is to tell our audience what we know about that story today.

Henderson, McKinney, and McKinney’s girlfriend all tell stories on this show that are different from the ones they swore to after the arrests and at the trial, but they are not challenged about that. Why not?
We challenged each and every person we interviewed and brought them face-to-face with the contradictions with the story they had told previously and the things they were telling us now. But we’re limited in the amount of information we can put forward in one hour on television. We condense it to the best possible report we can. I leave it to others to judge if we did a good job or not. I think we did.

The show starts with a voice-over saying that since their convictions, Henderson and McKinney have not talked to the press “until now.” But viewers are not told that as part of his plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, McKinney agreed never to speak to the press. Isn’t it misleading to have left that out?
Our job as journalists is to try to get people on the record, to elicit information from them. The agreement that someone may or may not have made, and there seems to be some question as to whether McKinney had actually made that agreement, and if it had been made, whether it could ever have been enforceable, is not our focus. [Editor’s note: The fact that McKinney agreed never to speak to the media, a promise made in a letter to the Shepards from McKinney’s legal counsel, has never been in doubt. The agreement has been reported and debated repeatedly in the years since he made it. His promise was not part of his plea bargain, however, and so may not be legally enforceable.] We sought permissions from various prison officials and got in to do the interviews.

Nonetheless, doesn’t inviting McKinney to talk raise ethical questions?
That’s a bit like asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?” You can be sure that in every story we do, we maintain very high standards and have great respect for the ethics of journalism. And I can see nothing about this report that gives me pause with regard to those questions.

Judy Shepard criticized the show as a whole, and particularly the way she was represented, saying her remarks “were reduced to a very few personal comments taken out of context.” What do you say to that?
I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and suffering that Judy Shepard and her family have endured these past few years. Certainly her feelings are of concern to us, and it was our hope to deal with her as sensitively as possible. Yet there are obviously facts and additional reporting about this case that contradict a lot of earlier reporting that is no doubt difficult to hear and absorb. Our job is to present this.

The show seemed to suggest that Shepard’s killing was caused by either drug use or homophobia, but not both. Isn’t it possible, even with crystal meth in the picture, that homophobia still played a role?
I take exception to your characterization of how we reported the story. We did get into many of the nuances. We were very mindful to talk about how destructive homophobia can be. At the same time, our report was about the myths versus the facts of the Matthew Shepard case. Some of the myths lead to important discussions and changes in attitudes. But it’s our job to look at the facts.

Are you saying that homophobia as a motivating factor in this killing is a myth?
No. We’re saying that the use of crystal meth by numerous individuals involved was a central factor, and that robbery may well have been the central motivating factor. From the beginning, the story was always that hate was the central factor, that they killed Matthew Shepard and beat him savagely because of their homophobia. The question that ABC News posed in this report was: Did drugs play a much larger role in this case? We believe they did.

But no one in this report said, “Homophobia and crystal meth together could have contributed to this killing.”
They are not mutually exclusive, you’re right. I think our report handled both of those things. Our point was that the underlying motivation was robbery fueled by drugs. That said, anybody who takes a pistol and beats somebody to the point of death and leaves them tied up to a fence is obviously a hateful person.

Some far-right religious organizations are touting the conclusions of this report as a debunking of what they call the “homophobia myth” in Matthew Shepard’s killing. How do you feel about that?
We set out to get at the truth of something and do our best to present that truth. We do not have an agenda. That others may pick up on our reporting and use it--and in some cases abuse it--is beyond our control. I’m a gay man. I was in New York City in the days after Matthew Shepard was beaten. I didn’t work at ABC News then. I was on Fifth Avenue marching with everyone else. Outraged, angry, scared, and upset.Matthew Shepard has been a hero to me for many years. I was skeptical when I heard we were going to be doing this report. I asked the same question a lot of other people asked: Why are we doing this? That was my personal reaction. My professional reaction is that you have to go where the truth leads you. I read the script. I watched the piece numerous times. I found our reporting incredibly compelling, and my mind was changed. I had to look at the cold hard reality of the facts we had assembled and ask myself: Does that add up to something? I think it does.

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