Truth bent for story
August 6, 2013
I never thought the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case deserved nearly the attention it got. But reasonable people can disagree about that. What strikes me as unconscionable, however, is the way the supposedly objective media have not only sensationalized a tragedy but at times appear to deliberately bend the facts to fit a desired story line.
Maybe it started with the use of pictures of a younger Martin or with the sudden embrace of the term "white Hispanic" to describe Zimmerman in order to more easily paint him as a racist.
NBC News was the most egregious offender on this score. Producers edited Zimmerman's 911 call to make it sound as if he were targeting Martin because of his race. The "Today" show ran audio of Zimmerman saying, "This guy looks like he's up to no good … he looks black." Those ellipses hide the fact Zimmerman said "he looks black" only after the operator asked him to describe Martin. (NBC has apologized, and Zimmerman is suing.)
Any hope that the editorializing would end with the trial was naive. National Public Radio recently profiled Sybrina Fulton, Martin's mother. In response to the tragedy and the trial, Fulton has become a civil rights activist, NPR reported.
It was a deferential piece, and understandably so. Who wants to add to the woman's pain? But there's a difference between deference and advocacy. In a speech to the National Urban League, Fulton said her son was killed "all because of a law, a law that has prevented the person who shot and killed my son to be held accountable and to pay for this awful crime."
And how did NPR's Greg Allen put that statement in context? He told listeners: "Fulton is one of many pushing for a repeal of Florida's 'stand your ground' law." He noted that sit-ins have been staged but that the Florida governor remains "unmoved." And that was it.
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Allen then went on to report that one of the jurors told ABC News, "George Zimmerman got away with murder but you can't get away from God." We owe that revelation to ABC's interview with Juror B29, a.k.a. "Maddy." The sole nonwhite juror in the case, Maddy made that remark to ABC's Robin Roberts. The quote went viral across electronic and print media.
The only problem: It's not clear that's what she thinks. As Will Saletan of Slate magazine notes, the video was artfully edited to make it appear as if Maddy generated this thought on her own. But when you watch an unedited segment, she's repeating back a statement by Roberts, and ABC News was happy to let the misinterpretation stand.
Letting misinterpretations stand is the hallmark of the media's coverage of this story. For instance, nowhere in NPR's report did Allen mention that Zimmerman's defense team never mentioned Florida's "stand your ground" law. They argued traditional self-defense. The decision not to arrest Zimmerman in the first place wasn't about that law either, despite widespread insistence that it was.
Much has been made of the fact that the judge's instructions to the jury included the phrase "right to stand his ground," without noting that is part of a standard jury instruction. As prosecutor John Guy declared, "This case is not about standing your ground."
This is not to say that "stand your ground" laws have no conceivable bearing on the Zimmerman case. Thoughtful critics of such laws, including President Obama, worry that they might create a climate in which people are too quick to resort to deadly force.
But that is an airy justification for the media to treat the law as if it were central to the whole controversy. Is it conceivable that NPR would let, say, a gun rights activist's wildly tendentious interpretation of a law stand without some explanation or context? Why should opponents of "stand your ground" laws get different treatment?
I think part of the answer is that the media and civil rights groups want a consolation prize. They didn't get the verdict — or the story line — they wanted. But they need to get something positive out of this. I certainly understand why Trayvon Martin's family feels that way. I fail to see why the media should so eagerly oblige.
Email Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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