Sourcing The Matthew Shepard Story

Alyssa Rosenberg has written an atypically brutal and ad hominem take-down of Jimenez’s The Book Of Matt. She focuses on the reliability of his anonymous sources:

[T]he sourcing gets particularly weak when Jimenez tries to make the leap from suggesting that Shepard used methamphetamine to suggesting that he was dealing on a large scale. A paragraph like this one would only be remotely credible if Jimenez had done an impressive job of establishing his reportorial bona fides earlier in the book:

I recalled that a friend of Matthew from the Denver circle had said Aaron and Matthew reported to different “co-captains,” and that both young men were at risk because of what they knew about the meth trade in Wyoming — and beyond. But my own investigation suggests there were more than two co-captains operating in Laramie at the time Matthew was killed, and that these rival operators weren’t always competitors and adversaries; they cooperated when it was in their interest to do so. According to former dealing cohorts of Aaron, his Laramie-based suppliers and the “top dogs” in Matthew’s Denver circle were well acquainted and, in some instances, were friends.

But instead, given the available evidence, it comes across as demanding a laughable level of trust. And it certainly doesn’t help that Jimenez never explains what his investigation consisted of, who his sources were, and how credible they were, or make any sort of link between a potential relationship and a motivation for silencing Aaron McKinney. Is Jimenez relying on the testimony of long-term meth users, reporting on their recollections from a distance? Is he talking to dealers who might want to make themselves seem like more significant players than they are? Is he relying on court documents?

And a paragraph like this implies the structure of an organization as well as motivation for a cover-up, but in the hands of a more experienced reporter, it would only the beginning of a longer and more detailed explanation, which would be sourced to people who were at least given basic descriptions, if not pseudonyms. Savvy reporters know that a paragraph like this invites questions. Jimenez seems to regard it as a decisive conclusion. There’s no question that methamphetamine’s a big and dangerous business. But if Jimenez has the goods, he’s not even close to delivering them here.

I was struck by the anger in Alyssa’s review, especially compared with the dispassionate manner of Steve’s explanations of his reporting. But she’s right to press on this point. I too was concerned about anonymous sourcing, which is why I insisted that Steve answer the charges in our own interview series with him. He did here:

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Make your own mind up given the two sources or, better still, read the book. I found much of it convincing, but perhaps my own cognitive bias against the whole issue of hate crimes affected my judgment.

But two critical parts of the Matthew Shepard myth are demolished in the book, even if you do not buy the idea that Shepard was active in selling drugs. The myth posits that McKinney and Henderson picked a stranger, Shepard, out at a bar in order to bash a gay guy. But Jimenez’s books shows very convincingly that McKinney and Shepard had known each other well before that night, shared a meth habit, and may even have had a sexual encounter. Now meth-heads do crazy things – and the notion that meth had nothing to do with the savagery of the murder, when McKinney had been on the drug for days before the crime, seems somewhat crude and counter-intuitive to me.

And there’s another myth about the book that is not true. It does not say that homophobia had nothing to do with the crime, as Alyssa falsely writes. It suggests it was indeed part of the motive, but that the case was more complicated than that. It gave us an early insight into the meth epidemic among gay men that was about to become a massive issue in the years ahead and that gay leaders were gingerly about addressing. But more importantly: the fact that this crime may have been more complicated than some felt was politically useful at the time does not detract from the fact that it was in part a homophobic attack and a horrendous crime, as more thoughtful reviews, like Aaron Hicklin’s in Out, or JoAnn Wypijewski’s in The Nation – hardly a rightwing rag. Check out Amazon readers’ reviews too, because they are not beholden to gay establishment interests. The book gets a 4.2 rating. These readers clearly don’t share Alyssa’s contempt for the book. I’m with them. But you should make up your own mind.