The Magazine

How the Father Figures

Why does the press ignore the story of John Walker Lindh's dad?

Jan 28, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 19 • By HARRY STEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WAS THERE MORE to the John Walker story than we know? For all the tens of millions of words that gushed forth about Walker, and the endless speculation as to how this young man could have gone so dreadfully wrong, has a potentially key element of the case gone almost completely unreported?

The question is prompted by a report in, of all places, the National Enquirer: "AMERICA'S TRAITOR TELLS ALL," screamed last week's cover, over the now-familiar photo of a filthy and disheveled Walker. Directly beneath came the even more dramatic subhed: "Dark family secret that drove him into Taliban."

According to the tabloid, the secret is that when Walker was 16, his attorney father, Frank Lindh, left his mother for a man.

In fact, this was not the first time such an assertion saw print--San Francisco Examiner columnist P.J. Corkery reported the same thing back on December 18. The question is why, given the tremendous attention devoted to the case, the mainstream media have not followed up on it. The most obvious answer came in the response to Corkery's report by Rob Morse, a columnist in the rival San Francisco Chronicle. According to Morse, Corkery "took attacks on (Walker's) family to a new and disgusting level."

If this were a conventional "outing"--which is to say, a gratuitous intrusion into the man's private life--Morse might have a point. But, of course, Frank Lindh, ubiquitous on the tube and repeatedly raising his "amicable divorce" from his wife, is a pivotal figure in Walker's much speculated-upon psychological journey. But the tenor of Morse's comments seemed to suggest that such a story, even if accurate, simply ought not be allowed to see the light of day for the reason that, by definition, treating such a subject at all is homophobic. (Indeed, in his attack on the story, he actually managed, with exquisite delicacy, to avoid giving readers any clue as to what it was about.)

The particulars of this case aside for the moment, such an episode speaks to a syndrome that increasingly feeds hostility toward the mainstream press: the appallingly arrogant assumption that on the hot-button social issues of sexuality, gender, and race, the public requires instruction in basic humanity, and in especially charged cases, the public must sometimes be protected from itself.

This is commonly defined by mainstream media honchos as "responsible news judgment," something which, by definition, they alone possess. Defensive as they tend to be about their own shrinking audience, they get positively apoplectic about the "tabloidization" of the press.

The bottom line is that often, on matters of compelling cultural or political importance, the tabloids are initially the only media willing to break ranks. Nor can they be as readily dismissed as they once were. Both the National Enquirer and the Star broke important news on the Clinton scandals, and only recently did the Enquirer beat everyone else on the story of Jesse Jackson's "love child"--one that, titillation value aside, threatened Jackson's very status as the nation's preeminent civil rights leader.

This is not to suggest such stories are necessarily all that hard to get. Steve Coz, the Enquirer's editorial director, says both Chicago dailies, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, had the Jackson story at the same time his paper did, adding "we were keeping our fingers crossed" lest someone beat them on the Walker story. Corkery adds, "This wasn't secret information. A lot of reporters knew about it. They just couldn't get it into their papers."

In its piece on the American Taliban, the Enquirer makes a very strong circumstantial case. While dutifully reporting that Lindh's close friend and alleged lover Bill Jones denies a sexual relationship with Lindh, it also identifies him as "the former owner of a gay bathhouse," and quotes him as saying, "I don't see why Frank's sexuality would have anything to do with his son joining the Taliban."

Of course, this last--the impact the father's behavior might have had on the son--is precisely why the story does matter. After all, the speculation began the moment Walker's identity was revealed: What could have possibly seized him to turn his back on everything the rest of us cherish to embrace a belief system devoid of the most rudimentary humanity?

The answers came almost too easily. Friends and family saw him as an idealist and a searcher, the kid who attended the alternative high school and found Islam at 16, after reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Others used the same set of facts less charitably, as evidence of a young man who came of age steeped in the cultural relativism of his time and place, and finally was left incapable of discerning right from wrong, or recognizing the face of evil, even in its presence.

As for his parents' divorce, that was portrayed by one group as a non-event, which in that milieu it surely is, and by the other, in contrast to the other details, as hardly worth dwelling on.

But this latest piece of information potentially casts things in a radically different light. It is far from unreasonable to speculate that a 16-year-old boy might have been thrown into psychological turmoil by such a thing. In fact, the Enquirer prints e-mails Walker wrote at the time indicating as much. In one, he attacked Disneyland, asking, "Isn't that the theme park that sponsored 'gay day' earlier this year?" In another, he referred to J. Edgar Hoover as "a gay fascist."

Nor does it seem coincidental that, just around the time of his parents' split, Walker dropped his father's name for his mother's. That he should embrace, in short order, a faith unremittingly hostile to homosexuality (and a sect that decrees adultery and homosexual behavior punishable by gruesome forms of execution) should, at the very least, provoke interest in further inquiry.

To anyone with critical sense, this is beyond obvious; and one would imagine that those attuned to psychological nuance, like, say, therapy-friendly reporter-types at big city journals, would be especially eager to pursue such a lead.

As a matter of fact, it doesn't take too deep a read between the lines to see that the New York Times was on to this angle almost from the start: "'I would gladly have him for my own son,' said Bill Jones, a family friend, whom Mr. Lindh lived with in San Rafael for two years after his separation from Ms. Walker" (written by the Times's Evelyn Nieves on December 4). But there it was tactfully left, as if this were 1965 and we were dealing with Oscar and Felix.

As the writer and gay activist Michelangelo Signorile observes, "If Lindh had left his wife for another woman and his son were traumatized, it would certainly be discussed by the media. So if Lindh did leave his wife for a man and it affected Walker, it should similarly be reported on."

Indeed, the Examiner's Corkery points out it was the local gay community's taking the story in stride that undercut initial charges by liberals that the assertion was homophobic.

By now there is a long history of news with perceived negative implications on favored victim groups (or even cultural allies) being handled by big-time media with a brand of "sensitivity" that can run from obfuscation to outright distortion.

Thus it was, to cite an especially noteworthy instance, that even as AIDS began to assume epidemic proportions in urban gay communities, almost no reporter covering the scourge (with the heroic exception of the San Francisco Chronicle's Randy Shilts, himself gay and HIV-positive) dared examine the sexual practices that hastened its spread.

Thus it was, too, that at the height of the Clinton impeachment saga, only a modest proportion of Americans were familiar with the name Juanita Broaddrick, despite the fact that she offered highly credible evidence, with no hope of personal gain, that she'd been raped by the future president. In seeming self-parody, the New York Times mentioned her only once, in a media piece on the dilemma of how to cover the story. The network newscasts, which routinely take their cues from the "paper of record," did not mention her at all.

In the end, such a course is as foolish as it is intellectually dishonest. Ultimately the result is not just an underinformed public, but ever-shrinking credibility, as the lies of omission and the hectoring about "diversity" and "sensitivity" continue to feed the perception that the media are more concerned with promoting a politically correct worldview than with truth.

Harry Stein is a contributing editor to City Journal and author of "How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (And Found Inner Peace)."