Thursday, May 7, 2009

act surprised when young white guys turn out to be killers

This is a guest post by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who blogs here. She describes herself as "a recovering journalist and a practicing author." The following (which originally appeared here) also appeared at Alternet.

Handsome and clean cut, or creepy freakin' loner?
If you're a news editor, the former;
if you're me and everyone I know, the latter.

The New York Times described alleged killer Philip Markoff as having led a "seemingly normal" life before he was arrested for killing a woman he'd met through Craigslist, and robbing at least two others.

The New York Daily News described Markoff as "clean cut" and "a high-achieving dentist's son". The Boston Globe also described the shaggy-haired Markoff as "clean cut" - as did countless other media outlets. called Markoff "all-American," while The Associated Press and dozens of others called him "handsome"; PR Insider said, simply, that "by all appearances, he had it all." Over and over again, coast to coast, American media outlets told us how goodlooking, smart, and "normal" Markoff was, or should have been.

As I read and watched the media coverage of the twenty-two-year-old alleged killer, I was stunned - though not surprised - by the fawning tone taken by the nation's reporters. After all, given the available information, Markoff could have been painted as a weird, antisocial woman-hater, irresponsible, deeply in debt, broke, and in the midst of eviction from his apartment. He could have been presented as a stone-faced, emotionless creep who scared classmates by forcing kisses on them, and had a long history of strange behavior. Hell, one look at the guy at a bar, and most women I know would have shuddered and walked the other way.

But Markoff wasn't served up to the public this way by the media. Rather, Markoff was served by the media on a silver platter, described as a great-looking, charming, rich guy (none of which were true) whose alleged crimes were ostensibly all the more shocking for one simple and disturbing reason: Markoff had stepped outside of our racist culture's perceived norm for his type. I'll say it again, in plain language: In the mythology of white male editors, guys like Markoff don't kill. They golf. With newspaper editors. Most of whom look like Markoff.

The hidden code in the news coverage of Markoff, as it was for "preppy killer" Robert Chambers and countless other white male killers, has been clear: tall young white guys, especially middle-class or wealthy ones in college, just don't do stuff like this. Except that they do.

History inconveniently proves the US media perception of privileged white men as nonviolent rulers of the earth to be counter to fact. The United States has produced more serial killers than any other nation on earth, and 85 percent of them have been white men, according to a study by Apsche. The average age that serial killers take their first victim is 28. Sixty-two percent target strangers exclusively, and 71 percent operate in a specific geographic area.

From this description, it appears that Markoff, rather than being the shocking exception to an imaginary rule where white guys are the good guys, was pretty much the classic manifestation of the real rule of creepy serial criminals of a certain type. Not to mention that this nation was created through the rape, murder, robbery and enslavement of dark-skinned people, by guys who looked like Markoff. (It is estimated that 100 million Native Americans were slaughtered by European "explorers," and 50 million Africans perished as the result of the American slave trade. None of this, however, seems to have any impact on the media's continued belief that educated white men are nonviolent.)

So, why the disconnect from reality among the media? That's easy. The media has long been in the business of selling perception over truth, especially when it comes to issues of race, socioeconomic class, and sex. If you wish to know the myths and prejudices of a time, read its newspapers. If you wish for the truths, read its poetry.

Sexism plays a part in the media coverage, too. That Markoff targeted women selling escort services only helped the media to see him as a good guy led astray by Jezebels. In her book "Virgin or Vamp: How the media cover sex crimes," Columbia Journalism professor Helen Benedict beautifully illustrates the distinctions placed upon victims and perpetrators of sex crimes, depending upon the reputation, dress, race, occupation and economic class of the female victim.

In cases such as the Markoff murder and robberies, the underlying message in media coverage tends to be that women were somehow asking for it. In presenting Markoff as "handsome," this mythology is underscored; after all, a handsome guy doesn't need an escort service. The women must have been asking for it.

Benedict places the blame for this sort of media coverage on the fact that most editors, reporters and copy editors in the national media are white men who find themselves relating, at a visceral level, to the alleged perpetrators. Thus, the media's description of Markoff as "normal". Whose normal? Normal to white male editors who live in white neighborhoods and have only white friends, one assumes.

If ever there was an argument for the need for increased diversity in America's newsrooms, it is the recent coverage of Markoff. Sadly, we are nowhere near such a goal. In fact, fewer minorities work in the news media now than ten years ago, according to a recent report in Columbia Journalism Review. In an increasingly non-white America, you do have to wonder if blatantly biased news coverage of alleged criminals like Markoff have anything to do with one after another newspaper filing for bankruptcy, or outright closing down.

For another discussion of the common white tendency to overlook that which is dangerous because it seems so normal, see Tim Wise's "School Shootings and White Denial," where he writes, "listen up my fellow white Americans: your children are no better, no nicer, no more moral, no more decent than anyone else. Dysfunction is all around you, whether you choose to recognize it or not."


  1. This is a great post.

    I especially like your pointing out his shaggy hair. I think that when the media says "clean-cut" they are also implying "white". No matter how nicely-groomed a black man is, he is never described by the media as "clean-cut" (let alone "All-American").

  2. "Loner" is always a code word in these stories, meaning "adjective explaining why a white man, for the millionth freaking time, did something we think only nonwhites do."

    As someone who really would rather be alone than in bad company, I find this a wee bit tiresome. But it obviously works, because it always accompanies or follows the "shock horror, it was a white guy" thing...even when the author intends to make the opposite point.

  3. this is an excellent post.

    i was reading another markoff article in some magazine people leave in the break room.

    the sad thing is that there are millions of people eating this shit up. they can't believe that a "good boy" in med school could lead a "double-life" (i love how "double-life" is synonymous with taking the life of another). and going off of what Jake said, i'm so sick of this phrase "All-American." we all know who it includes, and excludes.

  4. Not only are most serial killers white men, but I think the statistics would also bear out that white "straight" men are most likely to commit sexual abuse against girls...and boys. That's a whole other "secret" that mamma doesn't tell you about.

    History is always spoken loudest by the victor. They get to write the books.

  5. This doesn't surprise me in the slightest I have been crap to the media for YEARS now for glorifying white male serial killers yet using any and every opportunity to make crimes all about those 'black thugs'. This is the SAME garbage we saw with Bundy,Dahmer,and not only Robert Chambers but Scott Peterson as well and I'm just WAITING for the moment some nambypamby bought and paid for 'psychoanalyst' opines how he has 'mental problems' as if god forbid he would ever actually have to be hedl accountable for his actions.

  6. How many lies can an article have before it is totally shunned?

    We have just learned that America's most prolific serial killer may be a black man in LA.

    We also know that, proportionally-speaking, blacks are twice as likely to be serial killers as are whites.

    Lastly, this person thinks that the glowing terms used to describe Markoff were an attempt to say that whites don't do this type of stuff when in reality it said just the opposite, namely, All-Americans (read: white)are serial killers.

  7. On the flip side, there's this:

    It hurts my heart when I just think about that story.

  8. They get to write the books.I'm sure there's no correlation.


  9. Shouldn't the post's title be "rich young white guys"?

    I doubt most people are too surprised when poor white kids kill somebody (or commit any crime)...

  10. Macon, your point about women you know shying away from this guy if they met him in a bar illustrates something I read on some feminist blog this week (I wish I remembered where)-- women know that there is no "type" of man that they can automatically trust.

    I don't mean that women don't have sexist, classist, ageist attitudes in their reactions to men anyway, but they (or at least the ones I know) have a suspicion of all strange men because it is never news to us that a strange man could be someone who hurts women. We are brought up to be afraid that way.

    But, back to the main point, yeah, the coverage of this guy is kind of ridiculous. You don't see such a shocked tone in most murder coverage!

  11. Great article.The term "clean-cut" is exclusively used for whites by the media.Even though there are more white serial killers than blacks, the media acts surprised.
    @Thordaddy: you must live in phantasieland.

  12. Steffie,

    Actually, the term "clean" was used exclusively by Joe Biden in describing his boss. Is "clean" a term exclusively used for blacks?

    P.S. Do some research about the true picture of serial killing in America and you will undoubtedly be depressed that you've been mislead for so long.

  13. I never seen the term "clean" used for anybody that is black and accused of a crime. If you know, different please show me. I can't access the FBI from my location but here is a link from Wikki for serial killers in the US.
    For the ones without pics you have to search the Inet. But you will see that there are more white serial killers that black ones.

  14. Another aspect of this case is the almost complete erasure of the victimized women. I've seen the mainstream media and blogs (that is: blogs that should know better) heap all kinds of sympathy on the Markoff's "shocked" fiancee and very little sympathy for the victims and their families. I guess, like Markoff, his fiancee is white, young and middle class so her anguish is more worthy or something.

  15. To thordaddy: about how many more of your brain cells need to die off before you can be declared 'leggaly stupid'?!! As for the 'glowing terms' the author used for Merkoff he was being sarcastic and saying how the white-led MEDIA is going to paint him a glowing and favorable light even though he's a dangerous lowlife. So learn how to read between the lines and you seriously need to follow your OWN advice because you are exactly the same delusional type of person the writer was referring to.

  16. You are right about that Spider. The victims seem allmost irrelevant in all the stories because the focus is placed on the poor white kid that turned into a killer.

  17. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. There needs to be a new wave of people working in the media business who will not stand for the biased trash that is thrown to people. The worst part is that people actually believe it. The media could have gone so far with facts - like him being a murderer and dangerous - but instead he is laced with poetic adjectives that make him seem less than what he truly is. Because of it, this murderer is just seen as a white boy gone astray to most, and is probably pitied. It's ridiculous.

  18. To Spider,

    Wow, the victims and the victims' families do seem to be erased from everything. It is so messed up that the killer's attributes are a bulk of news stories, instead of talking about the victims' and the victims' families' suffering. It's horrifying actually.


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