In a powerful demonstration of the way the Internet has opened up the mainstream media to intensive second-guessing, bloggers are charging that news outlets have ignored the rape and murder of a young Knoxville couple because of the racial implications of the story.
The two victims were white; the five defendants are black.
The critics include mainstream conservatives, such as the National Review, and white supremacists. They have drawn comparisons to the Duke lacrosse rape case and wondered why the killings of Channon Christian, a 21-year-old University of Tennessee student, and her 23-year-old boyfriend, Christopher Newsom, are not getting the same attention from what the bloggers regard sneeringly as the liberal media.
"Oh, that's right, the victims were WHITE!" several conservative blogs have observed.
Or as National Review columnist Jack Dunphy commented online: "Uh oh, we're not supposed to talk about such things, are we."
It was bloggers who undermined CBS anchorman Dan Rather's 2004 report about President Bush's National Guard service, digging up evidence that the documents may have been forgeries. The next year, CNN chief Eason Jordan resigned after bloggers jumped all over him for supposedly saying that some journalists killed in Iraq by the U.S. military had been targeted. Last year, bloggers figured out that a Reuters photo showing the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on Beirut had been doctored.
Local media in Knoxville have covered developments in the carjacking case since the bodies were found, and The Associated Press ran stories that were transmitted nationally. But the killings have received scant attention from other media outlets.
"The Internet has been basically chastising the mainstream media now, it seems, since the Internet opened up," said Aly Colon at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"I mean, as soon as somebody had an electronic Internet megaphone, the opportunity to throw brickbats at the media just got amplified from the backyard-over-the-fence to an e-mail or a blog. That isn't necessarily new, but I think what you are witnessing may be is an increasing amount of that taking place."
Both sexually assaulted
Christian and Newsom were last seen Jan. 6. They were carjacked as they were leaving a friend's apartment. Newsom's shot and burned body was found the next day along the railroad tracks, and Christian's corpse was discovered two days later in a trash can at a house rented by one of the defendants. Both had been sexually assaulted. Household cleaner had been poured in her mouth to remove evidence, according to court records.
Some Internet postings have suggested the killings should be treated as a hate crime. But Police Chief Sterling Owen said: "We have no evidence to support the notion that this was a race-based crime. We see this as a cold-blooded murder."
Similarly, claims made over the Internet that the couple were sexually mutilated are "absolutely not true," John Gill, special assistant to District Attorney Randy Nichols, said Friday.
Christian's father, Gary Christian, wore a Confederate flag T-shirt to the first hearing for one of the defendants and then pointed at the man as if firing a gun. But family lawyer Joe Costner said Channon Christian's parents have repeatedly said they do not believe their daughter's killing was race-related.
Lemaricus Davidson, 25; his brother, Letalvis Cobbins, 24; George Thomas, 24; and Cobbins' former girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, 18, are charged with murder. A fifth defendant, Eric Boyd, 34, is being held on a federal charge of being an accessory after the fact, accused of helping Davidson.
The victims did not know the attackers and were just "at the wrong place at the wrong time," Gill said.
The four murder defendants will be given separate trials, beginning next May. Prosecutors have yet to say whether they will seek the death penalty.
Among the bloggers who have questioned the media coverage is country singer Charlie Daniels.
"I am not going to call it reverse racism," said Daniels, who has written on his Web page about how little he has heard of the case in Nashville, about 150 miles west of Knoxville. "But I will say it is very selective.
"There are probably not five stories in the country that could possibly have been more important than that one during the time it was going on," he said. "It is totally, completely unfair to the memory of these young people not to inform people about what happened to them."
More than a dozen e-mails to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in recent weeks have raised similar concerns, reader representative Ted Diadiun said. "Why are you guys covering this up?" they ask.
Diadiun said that based on the AP stories, it appeared that the crime was horrible but not substantially different from ones that "regrettably occur all over the country every day."
Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who operates Instapundit, a current events blog, said he was branded an apologist after he wrote that he had seen no evidence the killings were a hate crime.
However, he said: "I think it is totally true if the races of the perpetrators and the victims were reversed, the press would make a bigger deal about it. I think some people have been hanging back for fear of inflaming things."
Ted Gest, president of the Criminal Justice Journalists group, a national organization of reporters who cover crime, courts and prisons, said interracial crime tends to get more coverage than when the criminal and victim are of the same race.
"But I can't say that this one would have had any more coverage if five whites had been accused of doing these things to two blacks, absent a blatant racial motive," he said. "As bad as this crime is, the apparent absence of any interest group involvement or any other `angle' might also explain the lack of coverage."