News Analysis: In death, a partner becomes a roommate

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In the days after the November 11 murder of east Nashville resident Eric Mansfield, the mainstream news media in Nashville visibly struggled to acknowledge the relationship Mansfield enjoyed with his partner, O&AN Writer David Miller, choosing instead to contextualize the murder by way of Mansfield’s occupation.

Whether the ignorance toward the relationship was intentional is an interesting question, but an irrelevant one. That it hampered the sum reportage of this story is undeniable.

By all accounts this was a random act of violence. In that sense, we are all affected (a recent newscast reported there is not even one lead toward solving this crime). Who better to render an account of the suddenness of the loss, the intensity of the moment, than the intimate partner of the deceased? Though it’s understandable that Miller would refuse a request for an interview, a reference to Mansfield’s role in the east Nashville household – as a partner with Miller, who is the father of two – would have just as easily provided the context required for most residents to comprehend and empathize with the tragedy.

Yes, it’s possible that a news story of this sort could be viewed as politically motivated. To explain the situation, the relationship, in the same way, though – using the same terms the couple used – would remain a simple description of facts.

Mike Machak, a local veteran TV journalist, explained the situation in which many television news reporters find themselves at this time of year. “This is traditionally a very slow news period,” he said. “The holidays are notorious for it. Reporters are always looking for angles around any story that comes up and this one certainly had potential.”

Given his experience working in local TV news, Machak – who was a loud voice of concern on this topic in the days after the murder – provided insight into decisions that are made behind the camera.

“I think because you’re dealing with an individual in an openly gay relationship,” he said, “there’s a fear of touching it, of appearing to be supportive of the gay lifestyle.” As a gay man, Machak – and the rest of us – was likely more interested in the randomness of the murder before any question of the sexuality of the deceased.

“In a situation like this where a person is brutally murdered,” he said, “there are typically reporters in all the media who make an extra effort to peel the layers back on the story. This time, I didn’t see that effort.”

If Eric weren’t gay, Machak suggested, there would have been a greater push toward the human-interest profile, a story pointing out how this could have happened to any one of us. “With all respect to any individual, the immediate family, I mean, not wanting any additional exposure” he said, “the media failed based on this person’s sexual orientation to recognize him beyond the position he held in the community.”

That the murder occurred on a Friday night is of note. Weekend newscasts are generally the lowest rated, Saturday editions of the newspaper experience a similar weekly slump. Many in the GLBT community who knew Eric learned of his passing on Sunday or Monday, when the gossip came around. It was entirely possible this story wouldn’t have survived beyond Saturday.

Add to this the death of 15-year-old Denise Brown, another random murder that took place one day after Mansfield’s. She too died in east Nashville. Her murderer was identified almost immediately and, while Mansfield’s unsolved crime piggybacked Brown’s story in television newscasts, a nighttime vigil and plans for a community meeting hoped to keep the stories – and the hope to find the killers – in the city’s consciousness.

Enter Warner Bros. Records.

The headline in the Sunday, November 13 edition of the Tennessean – two days after the tragedy – read simply, “Record employee found shot to death.” A short article of little more than 200 words, it suggested Mansfield’s occupation was relevant to the story with this lede: “A Warner Bros. Records employee was found shot to death Friday night in his car on Chapel Avenue in east Nashville.” His employer, by that point, had announced a reward of $25,000 to help find the killer.

It also identified Mansfield’s partner, David Miller, though not by name, only as a roommate.

With that, and throughout all television news broadcasts the following day, the death of Eric Mansfield became a “music row executive murder.” One day after his funeral, on Wednesday November 16, an article in the Tennessean was headlined: “Slain Warner Bros. executive known for ‘gift of humor.’” At the very end of the story, the closing paragraph read: “ Mansfield is survived by his parents, Charles and Phyllis Krigbaum Mansfield; partner, David Mark Miller II; and his two children.”

Whatever confusion may have existed before the acknowledgement of the relationship had obviously dissipated. The initial police report, which sources believe named Miller as simply a roommate – along with the second-string weekend news staff – may have contributed to this confusion.

This ordeal raises questions about the handling of GLBT relationships in any mainstream circumstance. What is the preferred term? For many in this community, “partner” is the norm. But is it a term we universally accept without regard to its comprehension by the straight masses?

“Partner would have been the word (to use),” said Machak. “For the most part, it’s stating the nature of the relationship. It’s an easy way to project the relationship.” Friends of David Miller report that, in his initial call to police, he did not use the term “partner” because of its professional, business-oriented connotation.

Straight people are still struggling to comprehend why we demand the “gay men” and “lesbians” differentiation (much less, whether the word lesbian should be capitalized), and are wary to accept GLBT-accepted euphemism – be it outdated or not, politically correct or not. If the debate lingers within this community regarding our use of the word “partner” versus boyfriend/girlfriend or just flat-out husband/wife, it’s understandable that news reports would initially settle for “roommate.”

At this time, Out & About Newspaper is considering the possibility of bringing representatives from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association to Nashville for a meeting or diversity training session with local mainstream media representatives.

As recently as Monday November 28, the Tennessean published a profile of Denise Brown’s family. Though her murderer has been apprehended, many family members in similar situations allow themselves to speak to the media in order to keep the news value of the murder alive, in order to find an at-large killer. They hope, many times too, to purge themselves of excess emotion, to assist the grieving process.

Friends of David Miller report that local mainstream media is, in fact, interested in this story and the unsolved crime. Though he receives calls from local media on a daily basis, they say he remains unable to speak of his experience without breaking down.