Media Matters recently published another smearing of me and my work, this one under the title, “The Guardian Promotes Discredited, Debunked Book About Matthew Shepard's Murder.” By repeatedly suggesting in 10 purported “research” articles that The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard has been “discredited” and “debunked,” Media Matters, a self-styled misinformation watchdog, is spreading libel. The article to which Media Matters refers, by the way, appeared in The Observer, not The Guardian. The Observer is a separate, Sundays-only newspaper purchased in 1993 by the Guardian Media Group. Media Matters’ mistake is not surprising for an outfit that disseminates “rapid response items” backed up primarily by information its “researchers” find by trolling online.
Since the hardcover edition of The Book of Matt came out more than a year ago, dozens of reviewers writing for publications across the political spectrum have lauded my reporting. Moreover, Andrew Sullivan, Hampton Sides, Kevin Baker, Aaron Hicklin, Mark Crispin Miller, Lewis Whittington, John Stoltenberg, JoAnn Wypijewski, Kenneth Stern, and the Reverend Irene Monroe are among the journalists and authors who have praised my book.
Media Matters stated in its most recent assault: “The Guardian helped peddle a thoroughly discredited book alleging that Matthew Shepard was murdered in a drug-related incident.” Media Matters might be in the business of “helping peddle” whatever it is advocating, but the Guardian-owned publication The Observer is a journalistic enterprise. I’d never met or heard of reporter Julie Bindel before she contacted me for her independently reported story. She spent several weeks researching The Book of Matt and public reaction to it, and she interviewed numerous sources with firsthand knowledge of the Shepard murder case.
In its attacks against me and my book, Media Matters relies frequently on the claim that “investigators… have denounced the book as ‘fictional.’ ” Although two police officers, Dave O’Malley and Rob DeBree, have quarreled with some of the findings of my 13-year investigation, Media Matters fails to mention that several key law enforcement officials involved in the Shepard case agree with my conclusions. In September 2014, veteran prosecutor Cal Rerucha, who won life sentences for Shepard’s assailants, was quoted in The Casper Star-Tribune stating unequivocally, “If methamphetamine [hadn’t been present] in this case, we wouldn’t have had a murder.” The newspaper also noted, “[Rerucha] remains adamant that Shepard’s death wasn’t a hate crime.” He has repeatedly gone on record praising me and my work. In 2004, O’Malley, a police commander at the time of the murder, urged prosecutor Rerucha not to talk to ABC News 20/20 for a story I produced about undisclosed aspects of the Shepard case — “because of all the good that’s been done in Matt’s name,” according to Rerucha. In essence, O’Malley tried to enlist Rerucha in covering up the truth.
Lieutenant Ben Fritzen of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, who was a lead detective on the Shepard case and took killer Aaron McKinney’s recorded confession, has also stated on the record that the homicide was driven by drugs and money, not anti-gay bias. Former Laramie officer and state drug enforcement agent Flint Waters, who arrested McKinney’s accomplice Russell Henderson on the night of the crime, agrees with Rerucha and Fritzen. Is Media Matters saying these and other law enforcement officials interviewed for my book have been “discredited” and “debunked,” too?
According to Media Matters, “[The Book of Matt] has been criticized for relying on shoddy sources and omitting key facts about the case, prompting the Matthew Shepard Foundation to condemn the book for being based on rumors and innuendo.” I’d be pleased to sit down with Matthew Shepard Foundation officers and the Shepard family to share the vast archive of research material I’ve assembled. The body of firsthand information is irrefutable, and it will be made available to future researchers at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.
In a recent opinion piece published by Publishers Weekly, Steerforth Press publisher Chip Fleischer wrote: “Not a single fact or conclusion reported in the book has been seriously challenged since its publication a year ago.” No one has contacted Fleischer or anyone on his staff suggesting a need for corrections. In my new 20-page afterword to the paperback edition of The Book of Matt, I discuss the central role played by Media Matters in the smear campaign it calls “a barrage of criticism.” I also introduce new named sources that have come forward with additional independent corroboration of findings reported in the hardcover edition.
Fleischer also wrote: “I would ask those opposed to [the] book’s publication to reflect on why they fear the idea that the roles played by crystal meth, addiction, depression, and abuse in Matthew’s story might somehow make him a victim less worthy of our sympathy and anguish. Could the answers lead to progress against misunderstanding and intolerance in areas beyond the traditional reach of the gay rights movement, which has made such great strides in recent years? Could facile rejection of [The Book of Matt] mean that important lessons about the role of crystal meth in this story and in our society not get addressed?”
After a year of smearing me, Media Matters is now attacking Guardian reporter Julie Bindel for reporting on the book. Bindel is one of the few journalists to have actually interviewed a number of original sources in order to assess my work independently, which many American news organizations have apparently been loath to do.
According to Bindel, Media Matters declined to be interviewed about The Book of Matt. Rather than answer challenging questions, the group issued a prepared statement that has the all-too-familiar ring of political spin and no specificity that might lend credibility. The Matthew Shepard Foundation responded to Bindel’s interview requests with the same prepared statement they first issued a year ago.
It is indefensible as well for Media Matters to suggest that The Book of Matt has been rejected by the LGBTQ community. In addition to receiving praise from many respected gay journalists and Lambda Literary Review, I’ve been hosted by an array of gay and human rights organizations around the country, including the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, a coalition of LGBTQ groups at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, and others in Louisville, Sarasota, San Jose, and beyond. Moreover, The Book of Matt was edited by Michael Denneny, arguably the most influential figure in the history of gay publishing. Denneny founded Stonewall Editions at St. Martin’s Press and Christopher Street magazine, and he edited and/or published Randy Shilts (And the Band Played On, Conduct Unbecoming), Paul Monette, Larry Kramer, and other eminent gay authors. Will Denneny, too, be branded as “discredited” for his work on my book?
I invite Media Matters to select a representative to debate me face-to-face about The Book of Matt in an open public forum moderated by a journalist of national renown. Such a debate would be in the public interest: It would further clarify the factual truths surrounding Matthew Shepard’s tragic murder, and it would help educate the public about the important distinction between online advocacy and fact-based journalism.
To be clear, nowhere do I claim that the heart of Matthew’s killer, Aaron McKinney, was not filled with hate when he brutally murdered him. My book firmly establishes, however, that McKinney knew Matthew long before the night he killed him. They had dealt crystal meth to each other, they had used meth with each other, and, according to on-the-record sources who knew both young men, they had a sexual relationship. In other words, Matthew was not singled out for attack by two redneck strangers because he was gay. Moreover, strong evidence exists that on the night that he killed Matthew, McKinney was still in the throes of a week-long meth binge, which can result in an extremely violent state of mind known as “meth psychosis.”
The media reported the story of Matthew’s murder inaccurately from the beginning, and an overly simplistic narrative got set in stone. One would think a 501 (c) (3) media watchdog group that enjoys tax exempt status such as Media Matters would be in the business of supporting independent journalists who uncover and document cases of media malfeasance. Apparently, Media Matters has a different agenda.