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The Media Behind the Murders
by Adriene Sere

The prostitutes of Spokane and Tacoma who were murdered, allegedly by one man, the past several years might have been saved by the hate crimes legislation adopted a decade ago had this legislation not specifically excluded women. The prostitutes might have been saved by the Violence Against Women Act, had the act been adopted ten or fifteen years ago, and left intact by the courts.

Such legislation might have meant the difference between life and death for these women and girls, in part because hate crimes legislation teaches society a lot about its long-standing biases, bigotries, and hatred. When bigotry is so common that it is invisible, when bigotry-motivated crimes are considered “just life,” the law can go a long way in teaching our culture as a whole that what is “just life” is actually systematic hatred, and that this kind of hatred is particularly loathsome, and will not be tolerated.

However, as it happened, hate crime legislation had not yet taught society that gender-based crimes -- rape, battery, murder -- are crimes based on hatred of a group. The Violence Against Women Act, initially adopted in 1994 (and as of last month, partially dismantled by the Supreme Court), has indeed made a crucial impact in fighting gender-based violence. But it has yet to teach our society that gender-based violence must be seen in the same category as other hate crimes.

Our society, which still sees gender-based violence as “just life,” is responsible for setting up the murdered prostitutes to be abused for years -- by men, by an economic system that marginalizes and impoverishes women in particular, and by an unrelenting male supremacist culture that wallows in male aggression against female sexuality. Set up as targets for abuse, the prostitutes were then murdered by a man who was specific in the type of people he wanted to kill.

The media -- from the pornography industry to the mainstream corporate news to the “alternative” weeklies across the country -- should be considered particularly culpable in this violence, since they are particularly influential in our culture.

Pornography, one of the most lucrative media industries with its more than eight billion dollars a year in sales, doubtlessly played a direct role in encouraging the serial killings. The correlation between pornography and real life violence and abuse has been well established by several widely respected studies. But the more mainstream media -- which, unlike pornography, is impossible to avoid -- also play a central role in encouraging and perpetuating hate crimes against women.

This past decade, in an unrelenting backlash against feminism, the mainstream entertainment media have made the sexual objectification of females their main preoccupation. From hate radio, which obsessively targets women and girls, to TV sitcoms, which can’t seem to extract a canned laugh without verbally or visually molesting females, to the movie industry, where an actress hardly stands a chance of winning an Oscar unless she plays a glamorized role of a hooker -- every which way we turn, the hatred and targeting of women and girls are both cultivated and made invisible by the media around us.

The news media have also done their part to marginalize women and protect gender-based hate crimes from political scrutiny. Corporate-owned daily newspapers do not participate in direct sexual objectification (except for the daily ads of pliant, smiling women in their underwear), but they do participate in the erasure of women’s lives, and in the framing of an ideology that scapegoats women. The contrived welfare debate, and the subsequent scapegoating of poor women and the dismantling of the already paltry welfare system, is but one of many examples.

Before Robert Yates was arrested and charged with killing eight prostitutes (he is suspected of having killed many more), the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-IntelligencerNow that a suspected serial killer has been charged, the daily papers are covering the story without raising any questions about gender-based crimes, or their larger social, political and economic context. The papers don’t investigate the influences behind the suspected killer’s gender-based bigotry, though they take this approach at least to some extent when it comes to other hate crimes -- such as the murders Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.

Rather than search for evidence of woman-hating as a motive in the serial killings, the papers instead remind their readers that even though these women were prostitutes, they did not deserve to die. Instead of examining the context of the socially-generated hatred of women, particularly of prostitutes, the papers ponder the “irony” that the suspected serial killer was a “father of five” and had served in the military.

The Seattle Times even romanticizes the suspected killer. A May 7 headline reads: “Robert Yates: Son, husband, athlete, father, pilot, teacher, murder suspect”. The article that follows reads: “Robert Lee Yates threw fast pitches in high school, but didn't have much of a curve. He dreamed in college of being a doctor, but those dreams fell apart about the same time as his first marriage. He worked his way up to an elite post flying helicopters in the Army, but left two years shy of full retirement.”

It should come as little surprise that the Seattle Times also applauded last month’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down a crucial provision of the Violence Against Women Act (May 16). To its credit, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an eloquent denunciation of the ruling (May 21), which demonstrates that hate-crime legislation (and the activism behind the legislation) can educate. The Post-Intelligencer also avoided making Yates an object of fascination, as the Seattle Times has done, though it too has failed to show the killings in their social, political, and economic context.

Our local "alternative" papers, particularly the Seattle Weekly played a much more aggressive role in promoting gender-based hatred and violence against women.

The Seattle Weekly has become notably more “leftist” over the past couple of years under the leadership of editor-in-chief Knute Berger. But the paper has simultaneously increased its hostility toward women, seemingly in direct proportion to its “confrontational” politics.

While denouncing the various oppressions men must suffer, the Weekly presents shockingly offensive depictions of women on its cover, and throughout its rebellious pages. In the May 18 issue, they illustrated an article denouncing Dr. Laura’s bigotry against gays with a depiction of a smiling, long-haired blonde, presumably a young Dr. Laura, her breasts and nipples prominently displayed to show the readership what degraded slime this bigot really is.

Though the Weekly has printed hardly a word about the arrest of the suspected serial killer (with the exception of Angela Gunn, who discusses Yates as she marvels about DNA technology), the paper has obsessively focused on prostitutes since Knute Berger became chief editor. The focus is not at all sympathetic to prostitutes -- leftist politics does not apply at the Weekly when it comes to women, particularly those marked by their sexuality. Rather, the prostitutes in these hot “investigative” stories are villains, johns are their dupes, and pimps are “boyfriends” who “accept” the money of prostitutes.

The Weekly doesn’t stop with mere contempt and hostility. In its April 22 1999 issue, the Weekly published a letter explicitly encouraging a genocide against prostitutes. This, the letter argued, would save money and lessen disease in the world. The editors “humorously” endorsed the letter with the heading “Kill a hooker, save a buck”. The letter reads: “You say Old Green killed 50 prostitutes 15 years ago? (See "Green River Freezes Over," 3/25.) That's 750 prostitute-years. If a prostitute works 300 days/year, that's 225,000 prostitute-days. If a prostitute turns 10 tricks a day, that's 2,250,000 tricks. If 10 percent of the tricks come down with AIDS, that's about 200,000 cases. If every AIDS case costs the state $10,000, that's $2,000,000,000 in tax savings. Thanks, Old Green!”

Knute Berger and his all-male editorial staff knew that there were actual killings of prostitutes taking place, at that very time. The Weekly openly proclaimed its support.

The serial killing of prostitutes does not occur in a vacuum. The killers learn from the culture around them that the scapegoating and killing of prostitutes is the right thing to do. The media, mainstream and “alternative,” play a major role in teaching right from wrong to those who aren’t sure.

Had society thought differently about women, especially about prostitutes, the murders might never have taken place. Had the media promoted the notion that gender-based bigotry and hate crimes against women are repugnant and harmful, rather than a source of fun and games, the many prostitutes who were murdered in this area over the past few years might still be alive.

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