Human Rights

Why Are We Surprised When White Preppy Guys Turn Out to Be Murderers?

Philip Markoff is just like 85% of U.S. serial killers -- young, white and male. When will we get that these guys are the rule, not the exception?

(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 Timesdescribed 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 for 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. Politico.com 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 good-looking, smart and "normal" Markoff was, or should have been.

As I read and watched the media coverage of the 22-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 weird, anti-social, 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 U.S. 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; 62 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 University 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 slaying and robberies, the underlying message in media coverage tends to be that the 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 10 years ago, according to a recent report in Columbia Journalism Review.

In an increasingly nonwhite 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.

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a recovering journalist and practicing author. Check out her blog.
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