One of the remarkable elements of the coverage of the George Zimmerman murder trial is the way things have come full circle in the last month. Prior to the televised legal proceedings, there was only one narrative about the case that came through in most of the mainstream media: George Zimmerman, a racist bully, shot down an innocent black teenager in cold blood who came to symbolize every young member of a minority group. But once the country started to watch the trial as ratings-obsessed cable networks prioritized the case above all other news stories, a different story began to impinge on that simple morality tale of good and evil.
Televised trials sensationalize the judicial system and turn lawyers, judges and other assorted courthouse kibitzers into the legal equivalent of sports talk radio. But the one thing that we must acknowledge about the broadcasting of the proceedings is that it made it clear that this was a complicated case that bore little resemblance to the invective and cant about it that was so common among those who spoke about it in the mainstream press prior to the trial. Thus, when the jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges against him, no one who actually watched much of the trial could have been surprised. Though no one other than Zimmerman knows for sure what happened, the evidence seemed to support his claim of self-defense and established clear reasonable doubt about any of the prosecution’s accusations.
Yet now that the trial is over, much of the media seems to have reverted to its previous pattern of treating Zimmerman’s racism and guilt as givens. In much of the mainstream media today, but especially on MSNBC, the verdict has been treated as a green light not only for recriminations about the verdict but an excuse for an all-out, nonstop stream of racial incitement. Where last week it seemed most Americans were rightly trying to assess the virtues of the two sides’ arguments in a hard-fought case, today many liberals among the chattering classes in the media, pop culture and politics have regressed to stereotypes and mindless assumptions that tell us more about their own prejudices than about the supposedly racist state of American justice.
It must be re-stated that the death of Martin was a tragedy. Zimmerman is no hero for having killed an unarmed youth, even if the truth about Martin (that was not heard in court) is that he was not a choir boy. Even though the evidence made a not-guilty verdict inevitable, his behavior was at best questionable and at worst irresponsible. But the problem here was always that the facts of what was a confusing case, in which a Hispanic man who had been beat up killed his assailant in what both police and prosecutors saw as a case of self-defense, simply didn’t fit into the narrative about racism that so many on the left insisted must be the only possible way to interpret the incident.
Yet now that they are freed from the necessity of having to react to the defense’s case and the almost comical weakness of the prosecution’s argument, the liberal media has thrown off all constraints and reverted to the narrative about racial profiling and a martyred victim.
Today on MSNBC, numerous commentators have insisted that the prosecution pulled its punches instead of actually doing all in its power to convict Zimmerman even to the point of tricks in which they sought to withhold evidence. The jury is now denounced as an “all-white” southern panel that is no different from those of the Jim Crow past that tilted the justice system against blacks. Worst of all, professional racial hucksters like MSNBC’s Al Sharpton have been unleashed to treat weeks of evidence and argument about the truth of the accusations against Zimmerman as if they never happened and to gin up protests that will do nothing but enhance the profile of “activists” such as himself. Since the only verdict the left would have accepted is a guilty one, the failure of the prosecution, the behavior of the judge and the judgment of the jury are now being treated as an extension of American’s history of racism. The result is a wave of incitement about race that is painting the same country that just reelected an African-American to the presidency as if it were the segregated and intolerant nation of a century ago.
This is slander, but if much of the media (especially MSNBC, a network that faces a lawsuit for editing of the tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call that made him appear a racist and whose in-house token conservative Joe Scarborough called Zimmerman a “murderer”) really thinks the problem with the trial is that there wasn’t enough race baiting, it is a sign we are in for a new wave of hateful and dangerous invective streaming forth from these outlets that could have incalculable costs.
The reaction of most of the public to the case in the past few weeks while the trial was being televised was testimony to a new maturity about the discussion of race.
The viewers understood that the tragic death of Martin was the product of a complex set of circumstances and not a morality play. Yet what some in the liberal media—and virtually everyone blathering on MSNBC today—are desperate to do is to ignore the evidence and try to transform it into a discussion of white supremacy or their politicized efforts to ban guns or amend laws that enable people to defend themselves against assailants.
Should President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder heed these voices of incitement and plunge the country into more months or even years of racial arguments by pursuing a foolish effort to charge Zimmerman with civil rights violations, the big loser isn’t so much the man who was acquitted on Saturday night as it is the country. America has come a long way since the days of Jim Crow and made too much progress to allow the likes of Sharpton and the rest of the MSNBC crew to emphasize and exploit racial divisions in order to advance their own radical political agenda at the expense of building understanding between groups and individuals.