Journalism will never subdue its unruly temptation to turn the world into a soap opera. When motives are mixed, we want to unmix them. When the truth lies in shadows, we want to flip a switch. If the reason why can’t be told in 800 words, maybe it’s the wrong reason. And when searching for answers, the human heart is always a more entertaining source than dusty law books.

When hate-crime legislation was first hitting the headlines back in the 1980s, a lot of journalists couldn’t see the point. What good was a law outlawing crime that was already illegal? The point, we suspected, was political. “The hate-crime law was written to please every conceivable minority,” Mike Royko wrote back in 1997, a few months before he died. “It can even be applied to a boozy phone call from someone who didn’t like a TV commercial. . . . What’s next in our hypersensitive society? Hate crimes for yelling at a Bears quarterback or a Cubs pitcher?”

Royko was writing about a drunk who saw a bankruptcy attorney’s ad on TV late one night, picked up his phone, called the number on the screen, and told the lawyer’s voice mail that he was a “Jewish parasite” who belonged in the “fuckin’ ovens.” The drunk had just come out of bankruptcy and was beside himself with self-pity. He spent a night in jail, pleaded guilty to a felony hate crime, and was sentenced to 200 hours of community service. Prior to the Illinois Hate Crime Act, he could only have been charged with phone harassment, a Class B misdemeanor.

“I just don’t believe you can determine what is or isn’t a hate crime. To a certain extent it requires mind reading,” Royko told me. “A felony conviction’s pretty damn extreme for stupid talk.”

Just last week, ten years later, Royko’s successor at the Tribune, John Kass, ripped the idea of hate crimes for a different reason. “When I think of hate crimes that are not considered hate crimes under the law,” Kass’s June 13 column began, “I think of Ionya Feldman, the old shoemaker.” Kass then told the story of a rabbi’s son from Kiev who was beaten to death by a black man. Echoing Royko, he asserted, “Hate crimes and the lack of hate-crime status depend on the politics of the day,” and he implicated the media in what struck him as fundamental unfairness. “Why journalists play down black-on-white crime would take more than a few columns to answer,” he wrote. “We don’t want to give comfort to white racists. It also may have something to do with our politics. . . . Mostly we’re of a certain class and tone: white and college-educated, politically liberal, holding an abiding (and terribly mistaken) faith in government regulation to engineer social outcomes.”

Kass’s fugue on journalists is worth debating. But as to what a hate crime is and isn’t, he didn’t know what he was talking about. His paper’s partially to blame.

While writing about Royko in 1997, I was swayed by a letter in the Tribune from Chicago attorney Betsy Shuman-Moore, then and now a friend of mine. She explained that hate crimes are different because their purpose is to “injure the entire group or community–blacks or Jews for example–against whom they are directed.” To put it simply, a hate crime strikes at the individual to terrorize the group. This compounds the crime and justifies the added charge. Once I worked this out I had no problem with hate crimes–at least as a concept.

When I saw the headline dominating the front page of the Tribune on Sunday, June 10–“Tribune Special Report: What is a hate crime?”–I assumed the paper was going to clear the air with pretty much the same explanation Shuman-Moore had given. I was wrong.

Hate crimes are topical because on May 3 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, which would widen the sweep of existing federal law. But Howard Witt’s piece for the Tribune didn’t even mention the bill. Instead, it told the story of a young white Knoxville couple who in January “were carjacked, kidnapped, raped and finally murdered during an ordeal of unimaginable terror” by blacks, and said the incident “has now ignited a fierce dispute over the definition of hate crimes and how the mainstream media choose to cover America’s most discomfiting interracial attacks.”

Hate crimes are defined by state and federal laws, but Witt didn’t bother with those. His preoccupation was the conservative street definition, a hate crime being whatever fetches national reporters to the scene and Al Sharpton to a microphone. The Knoxville murders didn’t receive much attention outside of Knoxville–except, Witt observed, by “conservative commentators across the country who insist the case offers clear evidence of liberal bias in the major media.”

In short, the proposition Witt wanted to air out was one that says a hate crime is any crime that finds liberals grinding an ax. You’d think the Tribune’s “special report” would have found room for the law’s answer to the question posed by the headline, but the law wasn’t consulted.

Witt’s report wasn’t all the Tribune had to say recently on the matter. On May 28 Dennis Byrne had a column about a couple of high school girls in Crystal Lake who’d been charged with a hate crime for handing out literature that police said was antigay. “They expressed an opinion,” wrote Byrne, wondering whatever happened to free speech. Unlike Witt and Kass, Byrne did at least glance at the law. He said it creates categories of “historically persecuted” people for whom hate-crime legislation is presumably a necessary protection. Byrne wasn’t buying that. He concluded, “If we’re going to have hate-crime laws, they should protect everyone. Not just the groups that cynical politicians want to cultivate for votes.”

As director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s hate-crimes project, Betsy Shuman-Moore has a pretty good grasp on the subject. She read Byrne’s column and Witt’s story and then wrote the Tribune. “What is a hate crime?” she began. “A hate crime is a crime motivated by reason of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender, under the Illinois Hate Crime Act. It protects everyone who is victimized by this crime, of all races, religions, and national origins etc.

“In order for the crime to be charged by law enforcement or victims to file a civil suit: 1) a crime must have been committed, and 2) there must be evidence of illegal motive. The ‘hate’ in ‘hate crime’ refers to discriminatory motive, not to whether a perpetrator hates a victim.” She went on to say she understood that in Knoxville “no evidence of a racial motive” had turned up, and therefore prosecutors “properly charged the suspects with mur-der and other crimes, but not hate crime.”

The trouble with the state and federal hate-crime acts is something Byrne put his finger on: they’re shopping lists. The principle that a greater crime is committed when the individual is made to suffer for the group may justify hate-crime laws, but it’s not written into them. All the laws do is set forth cate-gories. Shuman-Moore’s letter listed the categories protected under Illinois law. One of the goals of the federal act the House just passed was to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability to a list that included race, color, religion, and national origin. Then on May 8, Texas representative Eddie Bernice Johnson introduced an amendment that would establish people with “homeless status” as a group tracked under the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.

I’m a lot less conservative than Byrne, but I have no trouble agreeing with him that the law shouldn’t look like a refrigerator door covered with magnets. The federal law in particular seems susceptible to degradation. There’s evenhandedness in declaring a crime motivated by race, religion, or sexual orientation a hate crime. Prosecutors of the Knoxville killers or Ionya Feldman’s murderer could have pursued hate-crime charges, though they didn’t. But “disability” cuts only one way. So does “homeless status.” Perhaps some congressman down the road will decide to champion “dietary preference” or “collegiate- or professional-sports loyalty.”

Regardless, the proposition that a hate crime is any crime that finds the media and civil-rights celebrities doing the same old song and dance deserves a far more thoughtful response than the Tribune gave it. Last Sunday, public editor Timothy McNulty came close to apologizing to readers for wasting their time. Faulting both the writing and the “packaging,” McNulty allowed that Witt’s story “promised more than it delivered and was more stereotypical than informative”–and didn’t adequately answer the question its headline asked.

McNulty wrote: “The story should have probed deeper and given more context to the issues. While the connection between race and crime is a complex subject for any writer, readers expect a special report in the newspaper to be special and its presentation precise.”

McNulty might have added this: if the Tribune’s special report had told readers what the law says, Kass probably wouldn’t have been so wrong about it in his column a few days later.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell.