In the wake of the mistrial of Brandon McInerney, who was witnessed by his classmates as he shot his classmate Lawrence King in the back of the head for flirting with him, the Los Angeles Times, the paper of record for California and one of the most widely respected journalistic institutions in this country, posted this editorial on what the author asserts as the most important “lesson” we should learn from this case–that teenagers need “guidance.”
In the piece, entitled “Lessons from a Teen Student’s Killing,” columnist Sandy Banks purports to provide insight into why this tragedy occurred, asserting that the adults at E.O. Green Middle School were “bumbling” in the way that they handled the Larry King situation–that is, his “clumsily asserting his sexuality” by coming to school in heels and make-up. This “slight, effeminate boy” was taunting the “strapping young athlete from a violent home,” she points out, blowing him kisses and following him around; Banks makes the point of asking (although presumably we already know how she feels): “was Brandon an angry white supremacist who plotted the killing because he despised Larry for being gay? Or was the shooting a ‘crime of passion’ by a troubled, frustrated teenage boy embarrassed beyond reason by another boy’s unwanted romantic attentions?” Most of the stories surrounding this trial have made at least some politically-correct effort to pay lip service to the tragedy of what actually happened to Larry–after all, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the back of the head in English class. Banks, however, supplies only the wistful thought that had Larry lived, he “might have grown beyond glittery nail polish and pink high-heeled boots.”
This barely-concealed bias is surprising enough, coming from the LA Times. But Banks continues, criticizing the teachers who tried to help Larry figure out who he was by giving him dresses and emotional support. Admittedly, she makes a good point that the mixed messages Larry received from confused adults were problematic, for him and for his classmates, who did, naturally and understandably, look to their teachers and administrators for guidance on how to proceed with Larry, presenting everyone as he did with new experiences that undoubtedly made some uncomfortable. But Banks seems to be suggesting that it was the teachers who encouraged Larry to be himself that should be blamed for this tragedy–or at least, that they can teach us the most important lesson from this mess. It was Larry’s English teacher, after all (who has since been fired by the school district and now works at Starbucks) who gave Larry a shimmery prom dress and taught him how to put on make-up. If not for her and others like her, Brandon McInerny would have had no reason to bring his father’s gun to school to shoot Lawrence King in the back of the head. It was the well-meaning but destructive guidance these adults had given to Larry King that exacerbated the “muddle of middle school,” she says, “where children may have benefited from clearer boundaries and a bit less freedom.”
Rather than continue to rip into this article, a piece published by a newspaper that should know better, I would like to advance what I believe to be the most important “lesson” to be learned from this story.
As journalists, we are charged with the duty of presenting the facts to an audience that is trying to make sense of the world around them. Many LA Times readers, I have no doubt, have great respect for this columnist, a veteran in the industry; they trust what she has to say, and they look to her for guidance, whether consciously or otherwise, in forming their opinions and value systems. Indeed, regardless of who the author is, the Los Angeles Times as a tone-setting and idea-advancing institution is a powerful one–whether we’re talking about column one news articles or editorials.
Thus, when columnists like Banks use the considerable platform given them by the LA Times and other papers to advance their own personal beliefs and politics, they run the risk of severely overstepping their bounds. By turning a tragic death into a “lesson” for those who would support the self-expression of gay teens, who would be brave and sensitive and compassionate enough to provide desperately-needed guidance for them when no one else will, Banks stopped being a journalist and became That Vaguely Homophobic Lady Who Works For The LA Times. Next time, hopefully, she and her peers will remember what their job is. Hopefully they’ll even have a thought for Larry King–or whatever the next one’s name happens to be.