Commentary Magazine


Trayvon Martin Case Highlights Why Americans Distrust Media

When Americans first heard the story of the death of Trayvon Martin, many in the public and in the media decided on a narrative for why George Zimmerman killed the unarmed black teenager in Florida on the night of February 26. It was decided that Zimmerman, a “white-Hispanic” (should we now start classifying President Obama as the first white-African American president?) pursued and shot an innocent unarmed black teen in cold blood, because of his own racial bias. Over time, details available to the public have come to light as the narrative on the night changed. Many of the new details have emerged because eyewitnesses have come forward and police reports have come to light. There are a significant number of details, however, that have been shaped and then changed by the media and the biased lens they used to frame the case.

One of the key ways in which the media portrayed the story as one driven by racial violence was by playing the audio of the 9-1-1 call Zimmerman placed the night Martin died. While covering the case, NBC played excerpts of the call which made Zimmerman sound like nothing less than an armed member of the KKK. From the call NBC played the audio:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

After playing that phrase on-air multiple times, NBC issued an apology (of sorts). They have now admitted the audio they played to millions of Americans was edited, and the full context of the conversation between Zimmerman and the  9-1-1 operator was this:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

A blog post on the Washington Post website articulated what was wrong with the statement issued by NBC:

Does the statement adequately address those concerns? On the good front, it acknowledges the mistake and apologizes to viewers for the bad editing. It’s a forthright correction and spares us any excuses about the faulty portrayal. On the bad front, the statement is skimpy on the details on just how the mistake unfolded. Nor does it articulate an apology directly to George Zimmerman, the “viewer” who is most aggrieved by the screw-up. In light of all that’s happened, Zimmerman may be a tough person for a news network to apologize to, but that’s just the point: Apologies are hard.

The fact that this news broke on a Washington Post blog, and on a low traffic one at that, speaks volumes about how the Post views the NBC error as well.

Many proponents of the racial motivation theory pointed to another aspect of the 9-1-1 tape to prove that Zimmerman’s pursuit and shooting of Martin was due to Zimmerman’s bias. CNN was particularly enthusiastic about playing a segment of the 9-1-1 tape’s audio over and over and over, while trying to discern what was being said over background noise and labored breathing. In the segment, a CNN reporter asserted that he was fairly sure he heard Zimmerman mutter a racial slur while chasing after Martin. Now CNN has enhanced the audio even further, and the reporter who claimed Zimmerman used a slur is now suggesting that instead of Zimmerman complaining about “coons,” he was actually probably using the word “cold.” The likelihood of CNN playing the segment on this correction as many times as it played the alleged remarks is pretty slim.

A crucial part of the case which could establish Zimmerman’s claim that shooting Martin was in self-defense revolves around the moments before the gun went off. Was Martin being chased by Zimmerman, as his family claims, or was he pummeling Zimmerman on the ground, as Zimmerman claims? ABC released a video of Zimmerman’s arrest on the night of Martin’s death, hyping up the claim the video didn’t show any signs of injury on Zimmerman’s part, thereby invalidating his claim that Martin slammed his head against the sidewalk multiple times. Later, ABC broke the story that they themselves had edited the tape, eliminating pictures that proved Zimmerman walked into the police station with fresh head wounds. The Daily Caller remarked,

Now ABC News has reversed itself, and somehow it’s an “exclusive.” Not a correction. Not a retraction. An “exclusive.” Their big scoop is that their previous big scoop was wrong.

As with the CNN and NBC “corrections,” this reversal has received a fraction of the airtime that the original inflammatory accusations against Zimmerman received. As the case unfolds and new details emerge in the mainstream media, my immediate reaction has become: “Interesting. I wonder if it’s true.”

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