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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
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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.