Prompted by a TV news investigation questioning whether Matthew Shepard’s murder was an “anti-gay hate crime,” the traditional-values group Focus on the Family asked NBC News to apologize for suggesting Bible believers were responsible for creating the “climate” in which the attack took place.

But NBC defended “Today Show” host Katie Couric for her questions in an an Oct. 12, 1998, interview with the then-governor of Wyoming, where the attack took place.

Couric asked the governor whether “conservative political organizations like the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family are contributing to this anti-homosexual atmosphere” by suggesting homosexuals can change their sexual orientation.

“That prompts people to say,” Couric added in her question, “‘If I meet someone who is homosexual, I’m going to take action and try to convince them or try to harm them.'”

Shepard was a 21-year-old homosexual student at the University of Wyoming, whose burned and battered body was found in the snow outside Laramie in October 1998.

NBC News Executive Producer for Broadcast Standards David McCormick defended Couric in a reply to Focus on the Family on Wednesday.

McCormick argued that in the days after the critically injured Shepard was found tied to a fencepost, “there was a great deal of speculation that the crime may have been motivated by hate.”

“If you look closely at the transcript of the interview, you will note that Ms. Couric was quoting ‘gay activists’ who were quite vocal at the time of Mr. Shepard’s death,” McCormick wrote. “She was not making a statement of fact and she was certainly not insinuating that” Christians were responsible for Shepard’s murder.

In a reply Thursday, Focus on the Family President Don Hodel rejected McCormick’s reasoning.

“As we all know, the tone and manner with which a question is posed can convey a great deal of information,” Hodel wrote.

“It was clear six years ago, and remains clear today, that Ms. Couric’s tone and manner were not that of an impartial journalist seeking the truth about a tragedy. It was the tone and manner of an advocate intent on repeating an unfounded accusation disguised as a question.

“She named three Christian organizations (one of them Focus on the Family) and asserted the gay rights activists’ charges of ‘contributing to this anti-homosexual atmosphere’ by having an ad campaign that suggested that gay people might like to change their orientation. It was definitely a ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ type of question.”

Along with Couric, NBC reporter David Gregory raised the same questions in a news piece, saying, “The ads were controversial for portraying gays and lesbians as sinners who had made poor choices, despite the growing belief that homosexuality may be genetic. … Have the ads fostered a climate of anti-gay hate that leads to incidents like the killing of Matthew Shepard? Gay rights activists say the ads convey a message that gay people are defective.”

Targeted for money?

The exchange this week between Focus on the Family and NBC News came after a Nov. 26 segment on the ABC News program “20/20” which raised the possibility Shepard was targeted for his money, not over his homosexuality.

Shepard, according to the findings of the court, was kidnapped and brutally beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson after he made a sexual advance at one of the two men at a bar. According to McKinney’s then-girlfriend, both men pretended to be homosexual in order to lure Shepard outside and rob him.

Shepard later was found brutally beaten, robbed and tied to a fence. He died five days later of massive head injuries.

His death and the trials of McKinney and Henderson galvanized homosexuals and their supporters across the country, fueling the call for state and federal ‘hate-crime’ legislation.

Henderson and McKinney, both speaking for the first time since being sentenced to double life terms, now deny Shepard’s homosexuality played a role in their decision to murder him. McKinney has been barred from speaking to the press about the crime as a condition of a plea bargain with prosecutors who promised to reward his vow of permanent silence by not seeking the death penalty. Legal experts do not expect prosecutors to pursue re-sentencing now that he has decided to talk.

ABC News said an underground world of methamphetamine use may have contributed to the crime.

That the iconic crime may prove to have been “just” a violent drug-related mugging has caused anger among some homosexuals.

“There is simply no way to ‘de-gay’ the murder of Matthew Shepard,” Michael Adams, education director at Lambda Legal, tells “There were the statements of the murders at the time and the defense even argued ‘gay panic’ claiming that Shepard had come onto them.”

By all appearances, concludes Adams, the program “serves no purpose and does a disservice to the memory of Matthew. Sadly Matthew Shepard is no longer here to tell his version of the story.”

“Does it make Aaron McKinney and Russell A. Henderson any less guilty of the crime that they committed? Absolutely not,” says Romain Patterson, one of Shepard’s close friends. “You just don’t kick someone in the crotch over and over again unless you have a real problem with their sexuality,” she says. “To imply otherwise, in my opinion, is irresponsible, and I think it’s irresponsible to be giving a voice to two very guilty men.”

But ABC News defends its investigation. “Exploring and re-examining the facts around that murder in a very thoughtful and in-depth way is the very essence of responsible journalism. This new information in no way diminishes the importance of the national conversation that took place after Matthew Shepard’s murder,” says spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. “The murder of Matthew Shepard was and is a heinous and vicious crime.”

In the wake of Shepard’s death in 1998, then-President Clinton urged passage of a federal hate crimes bill that would include sexual orientation as a protected class. The bill has yet to pass and revelations that Shepard’s death may not have been a hate crime at all will certainly play into the continuing debate.

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