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The Book of Matt Raises the Bar of Real Journalism

Stripping away the myths surrounding the tragic death of Matthew Shepard.

by
Jane Whitson

Bio

December 10, 2013 - 12:00 am
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With the release this fall of Stephen Jimenez’s controversial magnum opus, The Book of Matt, a decade-long search for truth in the horrific beating-murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, one of Mark Twain’s best-known aphorisms comes to mind:

A rumor gets half-way round the world before the truth can get its boots on.

Nowhere might Twain’s truism be more aptly applied than in the loss of truth in journalism and the erection of a lucrative myth industry surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard fifteen years ago.

In the short time between the discovery of Shepard’s unconscious, badly beaten body on the prairie outside of Laramie and his death five days later — before law enforcement could release any preliminary findings or his parents could get back to the United States from Saudi Arabia to be with their dying son — a sensational, emotionally charged rumor was hatched and launched by two of Matt’s gay friends with little or no firsthand knowledge of the case.

Their rumor made glaring assumptions about the method and motives of what must have happened to their friend:  Matt was most surely beaten and murdered for one reason alone — he was an innocent, clean-cut gay man living in macho cowboy country and paid the ultimate price when he met a couple of homophobic rednecks in a Laramie bar that infamous night.  It would become the sensational lede of the century, overriding and influencing all aspects of the case going forward — law enforcement investigations, media coverage, court proceedings, sentencing, and ultimately federal hate crime legislation. It also started a gay civil rights industry with Matthew Shepard enshrined as the mythic good-guy centerfold.

Once this story was conjured out of mostly thin air, Matt’s friends passed their “news tip” with its crucifixion visual on to the LGBT community in Colorado and Wyoming and, more importantly, to a gay reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune who then fed it on to a hungry national press weary of  reporting endlessly about Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

What ensued was a national media spectacle and criminal justice circus of epic proportions. Laramie became a near-riot zone for months as hysterical activists, reporters and federal agents descended on and camped out in this sleepy college town.  The American public scarfed it all down like candy. In fact, it licked the media plate clean, imbibing every last harrowing morsel of the gruesome murder. Then America tried to forget its own self-loathing that such an unthinkable act of homophobia could happen in this country

But did it really go down that way?  Is it possible the truth went missing in favor of a fast-fiction in the early days of the investigation, never to be seen publicly again? Until now — yes.

Stephen Jimenez, a gay journalist,  also had bought into the conventional myth of homophobia in the Shepard case when he first traveled to Laramie in 2000 — two years after the murder.  He was writing a screenplay for a TV movie and wanted to make a quick trip to tie up loose ends. But during his cursory research, he unexpectedly got mugged by inconsistent facts, an anonymous letter, hidden agendas and  contradictory alibis. Things just didn’t add up in his mind. Twelve years, hundreds of personal interviews,  myriad sources in 20 states, many documents, lots of court records and reams of other evidence later,  Jimenez would  finally be ready to say that much of the Shepard murder legend was fiction and that it’s finally time to set the record straight.

Truth has arrived with its boots on to answer questions as:

Was Matthew Shepard really innocent after all? Was homophobia the motive or something else altogether? Were Matthew Shephard and Aaron McKinney — Matt’s killer — really strangers who met in a bar that night or well-acquainted users and dealers of crystal meth who had traded drugs and money for sex with each other numerous times?

Weighing only 107 pounds when he died, was Matt HIV-positive from drug use or casual sex and did he have a premonition of his imminent murder?  Did some lawyers in the case — as well as law enforcement officers — know about and seek to steer the press away from the drug angle because they knew it would be opening a can of worms they were ill-prepared to handle? Was the Justice Department under Janet Reno aware Matt had AIDS and did it then put pressure on local officials to keep that fact hidden from public view, fearing the revelation could lead to another incendiary Oklahoma City bombing scenario?  What about Russell Henderson, a complicit and scared accomplice to the crime Aaron McKinney committed?  Was Henderson talked out of a trial and into a plea bargain that resulted in consecutive life sentences, after being threatened with the death sentence, never getting to tell his side of the story?

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Top Rated Comments   
Another example of the fight in this country between identity and principle. The case is an example of how windmills are tilted at and hate speech is reversed out and pointed at another identity in the name of being against that very thing. In other words, Shepard's death was used as a platform for hate speech by bigots who hide behind and exploit notions of social justice.

Nothing but that type of Orwellian madness can result from such an ideology. When right and wrong are smeared onto competing identities, there is no way we can measure right and wrong any more, other than using a photo. There is no standard of conduct, just who you are, in this case gay or not gay, as if that's all there is. If you are the wrong photo, good luck.

And in that sense that IS all there is. What you actually do becomes a thing without meaning. That's means vast swaths of the country are in a criminal line-up, but the kind where all presented are guilty.

The men in England who ran over and stabbed a young soldier to death who was the wrong photo admitted they loved Al Queda but had never met any. That means that some form of hate speech conveyed on some form of media taught them that young soldier was guilty the day he was born, because of who he was, not what he did. The soldier was killed because of a uniform someone put on him and he couldn't take off - his skin.

Did you see a great outpouring of grief for hate-crime legislation for a much more straight forward and obvious murder? You did not. Ironically, that is because of the very identity-speak that killed that young soldier in the first place. His murder was institutionally and culturally down-played by virtue of identity over principle, the soldier's skin, and the U.K. itself was then an accessory to that murder after the fact.

In principle, that young soldier demonstrably suffered more from a hate crime than did Matthew Shepard, and yet in identity it is Matthew Shepard that suffered the greater hate crime and so he is a piece of the one true cross.

That is why the sarcastic Tweet of a politically correct author recently about the impossibility of reverse racism not only ideologically ignores that murder in the U.K. but guarantees more will follow:

"CAN SOMEONE THINK ABOUT THE WHITE PEOPLE?!!"
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (13)
All Comments   (13)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
"This is the west sir, when the legend becomes fact....print the legend." The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
'Legend becomes fact' because of sensational and/or biased journalism.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
You MASSIVELY overstate the coverage of this story and the public reaction to it.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
What isn't covered is that the Matthew Shephard lie HAD to be told; otherwise, Jesse Dirkhising's rape and murder would have been bigger news.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Does the 'Ministry of Truth' approve of this posting?
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
I would hardly call his death "tragic" if the current allegations are true. He led a self-destructive drug-fueled life, pursued dangerous sexual pleasures with seedy characters and at last his debauchery caught up with him. I don't celebrate his death but, after all, he brought it upon himself.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
'"a partly false mythology could never yield the subtler, more powerful meanings of (Matthew’s) sacrifice.'" This was in no sense a sacrifice on Shepard's part.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Jane, thank you for writing about this book.

You say this book "raises the bar on real journalism." I would honestly be interested in what you thought of this quote from the introduction to the book:
"Though this is a work of nonfiction journalism, I have occasionally employed methods that are slightly less stringent in order to re-create the dialogue of characters -- words I did not personally hear; nor could the characters themselves recall every word exactly from memory."

In case other readers think I am some evil troller who made that up and you don't have a copy of the book yourself to check, you can read the introduction to the book on the publishers website at http://bit.ly/19eSTtr (page viii).
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
This, both the myth and the real story, are human tragedies. But it seems wherever there is some sort of human terror, there is often a hidden truth.

A similar story, yet even more vile, appeared in the German press recently about a man who was a police officer during the week and a murdering cannibal psychopath on the weekend. A couple of small comments in the story betray a more evil truth:

"According to an unconfirmed report in German daily Bild, Detlef G. was immersed in the online cannibal fetish community....The suspect (cannibal) ran the business with HIS HUSBAND.." "The younger man (an escaped near victim) WHO NOW LIVES WITH A BOYFRIEND, was not shocked by the murder allegations because, he told Bild, "after all, I went there to be eaten."" (Note: emphasis mine)

Another example of myth replacing a horrible truth or true evil being glossed over is the great lie that Muhammed, the founder and 'holy' prophet of Islam was in fact a sadistic, looting, enslaving, raping, lying, torturing, mutilating, decapitating, mass murdering sexual deviant, a case study of sadistic psychopathy.

Yet Muhammed, like Matthew Sheperd, is upheld as some kind of saint, upheld in the Koran and in Islamic tradition as the perfect man, the moral standard bearer for all Muslims.

There's a lot of evil out there....

~ The Infidel Alliance
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I eagerly look forward to what comes of this book - and the influence it has on every aspect of public opinion and the media - in the years to come."

Unfortunately, your hopes for a wider recognition of this book will probably be dashed against the rocks of political partisanship. To acknowledge this book would be to give it credibility and this would be too destructive of the myth. But at least this courageous author won't be viciously attacked for his truth-telling because to do so would bring him and his book attention. The fabricators of the myth would never let that happen.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
The irony here is that the politicized identity of the author will add to its credibility, unless the Left invokes their no true Scotsmen or simply calls the guy a traitor. In that sense, reality itself fails the first and is the last.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Another example of the fight in this country between identity and principle. The case is an example of how windmills are tilted at and hate speech is reversed out and pointed at another identity in the name of being against that very thing. In other words, Shepard's death was used as a platform for hate speech by bigots who hide behind and exploit notions of social justice.

Nothing but that type of Orwellian madness can result from such an ideology. When right and wrong are smeared onto competing identities, there is no way we can measure right and wrong any more, other than using a photo. There is no standard of conduct, just who you are, in this case gay or not gay, as if that's all there is. If you are the wrong photo, good luck.

And in that sense that IS all there is. What you actually do becomes a thing without meaning. That's means vast swaths of the country are in a criminal line-up, but the kind where all presented are guilty.

The men in England who ran over and stabbed a young soldier to death who was the wrong photo admitted they loved Al Queda but had never met any. That means that some form of hate speech conveyed on some form of media taught them that young soldier was guilty the day he was born, because of who he was, not what he did. The soldier was killed because of a uniform someone put on him and he couldn't take off - his skin.

Did you see a great outpouring of grief for hate-crime legislation for a much more straight forward and obvious murder? You did not. Ironically, that is because of the very identity-speak that killed that young soldier in the first place. His murder was institutionally and culturally down-played by virtue of identity over principle, the soldier's skin, and the U.K. itself was then an accessory to that murder after the fact.

In principle, that young soldier demonstrably suffered more from a hate crime than did Matthew Shepard, and yet in identity it is Matthew Shepard that suffered the greater hate crime and so he is a piece of the one true cross.

That is why the sarcastic Tweet of a politically correct author recently about the impossibility of reverse racism not only ideologically ignores that murder in the U.K. but guarantees more will follow:

"CAN SOMEONE THINK ABOUT THE WHITE PEOPLE?!!"
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Another example of the fight in this country between identity and principle."

Not quite: the fight is ultimately between reality and subjective whim.
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
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