The Death of Phil Hartman-How it Won’t Be Analyzed

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By Philip W. Cook

Bert Hoff, editor of Menweb on the Internet is making a prediction about news media coverage of the murder Thursday of comedian and TV star Phil Hartman by his wife. First, Hoff says, the words “domestic violence” will not be used in news reports about the incident. Second, there will be an outpouring of sympathy and compassion for Mrs. Hartman , and speculation as to what drove her to do it. This will include a discussion of how Phil Hartman treated her. Hoff says, “In these ways, coverage will vary significantly from the coverage if Mr. Hartman had shot and killed his wife and then killed himself.”

I will add to these predictions one of my own-most domestic violence awareness advocates will not be heard from. There will be no press releases from the same groups that were quick to comment on the O.J. Simpson case by pointing out that these kinds of domestic tragedies happen to many others who are not so well known.

The deaths of the Hartman’s however, should indeed help to alert us to how often the same type of domestic violence happens in our communities. The largest survey of spousal homicides conducted by the U.S. Justice Department shows that 62 percent of the time, wives were the victims, but 38 percent of the victims were men. The Justice Department also reported, that for black family spouse murders, “Wives were just about as likely to kill their husbands as husbands were to kill their wives.” Criminologists like Dr. Coramae Richey Mann, now retired from Florida State University, also point out that when women kill their mates, the statistics may not be as representative as when it is the other way around: “We don’t know the level of hidden homicide by women who use poison on their mates, since this method is often undetected, hence, there would be no arrest. Also, the justice system has a history of chivalry and paternalism toward women. Certainly, there are many examples where a man is charged with homicide, while a woman committing a similar act is charged with a lesser offense.” The Justice Department reports also don’t count as a spousal murder, cases in which one partner induced a third party to kill their mate for them-a tactic that is apparently used more frequently by women than men.

Despite the statistics and the conclusions of criminologists, it is still a safe bet that Mr. Hoff and my predictions about reaction to Phil Hartman’s death will be accurate. Why? Because it won’t even occur to most journalists that when things like this happen to a man, it is, and should be labeled as “domestic violence.” It won’t occur to them, because the advocates who have been bending their ears for years about such violence when women are the victims, have successfully carried out a policy of excluding from their conferences and media events any advocates for male victims. While correctly pointing out that silence about domestic violence only increases the chances of it occurring, they have systematically acted to ensure that there will be no recognition for these victims. There are many problems with this approach, not least among them, the fact that the substantial numbers of women who physically attack their mates do not get the kind of official sanctions and social service help that is most commonly available to men. A response that has been proven to reduce the chances of domestic violence reoccurring and escalating into the kind of tragedy that befell Phil and Brynn Hartman and their two small children.

It is important how journalists and other leaders react to such well-known incidents. The Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire has proof of how public attitudes and actions can change when attention is drawn to a problem. They report that public approval for a man slapping his wife under any circumstances has dropped from 20 percent in 1968 to 12 percent in 1992. The rate of public approval for a wife slapping her husband however, has stayed the same as it was in 1968, 22 percent. Justice Department reports and numerous sociological surveys show a drop in incidents of domestic violence against women-but no change at all or even increases in the number of attacks by women against men.

This may be the only analysis you will ever see about the death of Phil Hartman and it’s implications for public policy about domestic violence. Isn’t that a shame?


Philip W. Cook is the author of Abused Men-The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence (Praeger).