Commentary Magazine

The Media's Zimmermania

The factors that caused the shooting of a black teenager in central Florida to develop into a national obsession will be studied for years to come. But surely the motive force in the aftermath of the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent indictment and trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman was the American news-media collective. Its coverage of the killing, its unapologetic efforts to force the state of Florida to charge the teen’s killer, its outsize coverage of the trial, and its reaction to the jury’s decision to acquit the accused may in time come to be seen as an embarrassment to the media itself.

Less than a week after the verdict had stirred so many toxic delusions—from the notion that black people are in the crosshairs of white people to the idea that race relations have never been worse—the president of the United States delivered an unscheduled 18-minute speech on this peculiar, difficult case alone, one of the tens of thousands of courtroom struggles that take place every year. He was driven to do so not because the circumstances of the case warranted it, but because the coverage—because the media—made doing so a necessity.

Shortly after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in a twilight scuffle, the case became a cause célèbre among the left-wing and racialist media denizens. They were led by Al Sharpton, whose decades-long profession of stoking racial tensions in the supposed pursuit of justice had become a standing feature of the nightly show he hosts on the cable network MSNBC. The outrage centered on the fact that a white man had shot a black teenager and had not been arrested for the crime, owing to a decision by a local police department that Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. By early spring, the outrage over Zimmerman’s continued freedom was being expressed by Barack Obama himself, in the middle of a reelection effort whose success would depend on unprecedented black turnout. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” the president said on March 23, validating the racial lens through which the media viewed this crime.

Alongside the Martin family and their attorney, Benjamin Crump, Sharpton held a series of rallies demanding that the police charge Zimmerman with a crime—any crime. He declared on March 30, in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, that his organization, the National Action Network, would move to “the next level” if no arrest was made. Sharpton’s cryptic warning was made more tangible when the New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 reward for the “capture” of George Zimmerman, who was by this point in hiding. Concern over where this agitation might lead was substantiated when filmmaker Spike Lee erroneously tweeted the address of an elderly Florida couple, thinking that he had identified George Zimmerman’s home address. Flooded with threats, the family fled their home and secured an attorney for their protection.

One week later, Florida County Prosecutor Angela Corey—who had been asked to look into the case by Governor Rick Scott—declared her office would make an announcement relating to the Zimmerman case. On April 10, Corey revealed she would forgo a grand-jury review of the evidence and directly charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

Between Martin’s shooting and the arrest of Zimmerman, the media did their best to litigate the case in the court of public opinion. In doing so, they embraced a number of irresponsible theories and misrepresentations of the facts, some of which persist to this day.

On March 22, CNN obtained the audio of Zimmerman’s call to a 911 dispatcher, in which he requested police presence to deal with the teen he believed to be a neighborhood burglar scouting his next target. Isolating and enhancing the audio, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and his guests asserted that Zimmerman had muttered under his breath, “f—ing coons.” In the following weeks, CNN reporter Gary Tuchman and forensic audio expert Tom Owen determined that Zimmerman had actually said “punks,” and not the inflammatory racial slur.

When NBC News broadcast a version of Zimmerman’s 911 call, the organization edited it in a way that suggested Zimmerman had offered the detail of Martin’s race unsolicited—when in fact he had been asked by the dispatcher to describe the race of the person he was following. The misleading edit of that call was broadcast on both MSNBC and NBC’s Today. The network claimed that the edit was made because of constraints on broadcast time, but that argument was quietly superseded when the Florida-based producers who made that edit were disciplined. Zimmerman has since filed suit against NBC for defamation.

The audio of another call to police made by a neighbor watching the fatal confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin further slaked the media’s thirst for an indictment. It featured someone screaming, and on March 19, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin declared that this call showed definitively that Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin “was not self-defense.” “It suggests that Zimmerman was somehow the aggressor here,” Toobin told anchor Soledad O’Brien. He added that in his opinion, “it was Trayvon Martin screaming and not Zimmerman”—a peculiar assertion given that he knew neither man. That opinion was cast into doubt in any case by Zimmerman’s statement to the police right after the incident that he had been yelling for help. At least seven defense witnesses testified in court under oath that the screaming voice on that tape was Zimmerman’s.

“I’ve studied police cover-ups in the past and written about them,” said MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell when discussing the revelation of the neighbor’s 911 call, and “I believe that what we have here is evidence of a police cover-up.” O’Donnell would spend a portion of his program later that week angrily interrogating an empty chair when one of Zimmerman’s attorneys cancelled an appearance on his program at the last minute.

When ABC News obtained a video copy of Zimmerman being taken to the police station for questioning on the night he shot Martin, it suggested that the grainy surveillance video proved conclusively that the shooter showed no physical signs of a fight and that Zimmerman and his attorneys were fabricating the claim that he acted in self-defense. When the police later released images of a very bloodied Zimmerman before he was cleaned up by first responders, ABC News’s claim that the shooter had sustained no injuries was exposed as speculation.

The arrest of George Zimmerman quieted the furies, as did the onset of the election campaign. But by the spring of 2013, the press was primed to resume its jaundiced coverage with the opening of the murder trial. Cable-news networks broadcast almost every moment of the proceedings. The prosecution’s case faltered in shocking ways almost from the outset, and the very real possibility of a not-guilty verdict became clear to almost everyone who was watching carefully. When, late on a Saturday night in June, the verdict was announced after a relatively quick two-day deliberation, the media personalities who had spent the last year framing the Zimmerman case as evidence of the inherent racism of the criminal-justice system let loose a cascade of irresponsible pronouncements about what the verdict said about American society.

Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson—who, before the verdict was reached, denounced the American justice system for viewing the death of young black men as a “necessary condition”—insisted that African Americans were as shocked and wounded by the verdict of the Zimmerman case as whites were by the attacks of September 11, 2001. “So, you know how you felt on 9/11? Yeah, that’s how we feel when it comes to race,” Dyson declared on MSNBC.

“We need to arm our kids with the information they are suspects until proven innocent,” MSNBC host Touré warned. Later, he said that the verdict was a reminder for African Americans of “the lesser worth of black bodies and the inherent criminality ascribed to them by some in this nation, and the killability of black bodies—by which I mean the ease with which we can be killed with no legal ramifications.”

Another NBC News contributor, Goldie Taylor, announced on her Twitter account in the minutes after the verdict was reached that it was now “open season” on young black men. This sentiment was widely shared, though it was directly contradicted by the jury—which determined that no animus, racial or otherwise, had moved Zimmerman to shoot Martin. This determination was supported by an FBI investigation that interviewed 30 of Zimmerman’s associates and found no history of racism.

No matter. “This is, for many Americans, another piece of evidence of the incontrovertible contempt that this nation often shows and displays for black men,” radio host Tavis Smiley insisted on ABC’s This Week.

The Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith declared that Zimmerman’s defense team had, during proceedings, “literally invoked the same justification for the killing of Trayvon Martin that you would during lynching.” Once again speaking on MSNBC, Smith asserted, lamentably, that “George Zimmerman was protecting, not just himself, but white womanhood from this vicious, black thug.”

Charles Blow, of the New York Times, was beside himself: “It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice—both moral and legal—failed Martin and his family. Is there any place safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country?”

It was not only commentators on the left who were moved to overreact. Conservative columnist Ann Coulter celebrated the verdict for denying the media and the president a “sacrificial lamb” to further the “narrative about America as being run by the Klan.” Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly spent the week before the verdict anticipating the possibility of race riots erupting, should the defendant be acquitted. Such riots, with the exception of small-scale and isolated pockets of unrest, never materialized.

Not every reaction was overwrought. Some took a deep breath and, emerging from the insulated bubble of groupthink that so often characterizes the press as an institution, took a dispassionate look at what the verdict truly said about the country.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates set a measured tone in his take, published mere hours after the verdict was announced. He provided a counterpoint to the expressions of impotent rage voiced by many of the news media’s most celebrated commentators. Conceding that, based on the evidence presented in court, “the jury basically got it right,” Coates quoted his colleague at the Atlantic, Andrew Cohen, who observed that criminal trials “don’t work as strict ‘moral surrogates.’”

“Not everything that is immoral is illegal—nor should it be,” Coates wrote. “I want to live in a society that presumes innocence. I want to live in that society even when I feel that a person should be punished.”

The New York Daily News editorial board also responded in a reasoned fashion. “Although Zimmerman bears moral guilt for the killing of Trayvon Martin, the prosecution fell short of establishing beyond a reasonable doubt the ‘ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent’ necessary for second-degree murder under Florida’s penal code,” the editorial said. The paper found the “jury’s decision unsatisfying but respectable given the circumstances.”

It argued that while Zimmerman “bears terrible responsibility for irresponsibly precipitating the fatal incident with Martin, the jury’s focus was necessarily limited to what he did and why in their last moments together, not on what led to the fatal shot, not on the initial failure of Sanford authorities to prosecute Zimmerman, and not on the racial passions stirred by the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager who had been falsely profiled as a criminal.”

This honest and responsible appraisal of events was unfortunately undone, however, by the Daily News’s decision to link Martin’s death with the deaths of Emmett Till, Willie Edwards, James Chaney, Michael Donald, Michael Griffith, Yusef Hawkins, and James Byrd Jr. on its front page. Those were undeniable and monstrous cases of white-on-black racial violence—and have nothing whatsoever in common with Martin’s death beyond the fact that the respective victims shared the same skin color. The paper’s editorial board made this distinction perfectly clear, but it was overwhelmed by the front page.

In the end, it would fall to an unlikely source—Barack Obama—to expose the shamelessness of his supporters in the media in a manner so masterful that they were not even aware that they had been repudiated. With warning of only a few minutes on a Friday afternoon, the president took to the podium in the James Brady Briefing Room of the White House to share his extemporaneous thoughts on the Zimmerman verdict and what he believed it meant for race relations in the country.

Over the course of 17 minutes, the president spoke directly to the black community and the many commentators who had taken to citing the Zimmerman verdict as evidence of the dawning of a new Jim Crow era. Obama discussed the pervasive instinct among many to profile black men as criminals. The president noted, as he has in the past, that he knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such discrimination. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store,” the president said. “That includes me.”

But after securing the attention of the nation’s aggrieved African Americans, he shattered the premise upon which much of the week’s media coverage had centered. The president articulated the incontrovertible truth that, by virtually every metric, race relations in America are improving. “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” Obama told the assembled members of the White House press corps. “We’re becoming a more perfect Union. Not a perfect Union, but a more perfect Union.”

The president refocused the media’s attention—if only for a moment—on the fact that, though distorted by the Zimmerman-trial verdict, the perception of racial disparities in the United States has dramatically changed over a strikingly short period of time. Gallup polls over the course of the last 50 years have shown that Americans think that overt racial inequities have been disappearing at a rapid and historic pace.

Asked in June 1963, “Do you think that blacks have as good a chance as white people in your community to get any kind of job for which they are qualified?” 39 percent of Americans said they did and 48 percent said they did not. When this question was asked of respondents 15 years later, in 1978, 67 percent said that they did, and only 24 percent disagreed. Today, between 71 and 79 percent answer this question in the affirmative.

In August 2011, 50 percent said that civil rights for African Americans had “greatly improved,” with 39 percent qualifying that improvement with “somewhat.” Sixteen years earlier, only 32 percent of Americans said civil rights for African Americans had “greatly improved,” while 51 percent said that they had improved only “somewhat.”

In the wake of the 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, only 29 percent of respondents said that racial hatred would “eventually” cease to be an issue while 68 percent said that racial tension would “always be a problem.” By 2011, 52 percent could envision a day when racial tensions would be a thing of the past.

In January 2013, a majority of Americans said that they were either “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with the pace of racial progress in America.

Race relations are improving not only perceptually but also substantively. Progress has been arrested since the onset of the recession that began in 2007–2008, and persistently high black unemployment rates have depressed wage growth, but the income and wage gap between blacks and whites was quickly closing by 2005. Furthermore, the 2010 census discovered that, although less likely than other groups to receive degrees, “blacks were also more likely to have completed some college than any other group.”

Equality of opportunity—all that any citizen of the republic is ideally guaranteed in this life—is becoming a reality for all Americans of every background in almost every measurable way. It was the president who rightly felt the need to articulate this fact, because the media had abdicated its responsibility to do so.

The distortions did not end there. The decision so many in the media made to devote absurd amounts of broadcast time to covering the Zimmerman case might lead one to believe that white-on-black violence is a plague approaching epidemic proportions. Some who were outraged by that assertion repeatedly cited incidents of black-on-white violence and demanded to know why the media did not cover those cases with comparable fervor. But in fact, interracial violence of any kind is statistically quite rare.

“Between 2000 and 2010, 4,607 black murder victims 17 or younger were killed by other blacks (4,441 of the killers were 17 or younger),” wrote David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks in the Los Angeles Times. “There were 340 black victims 17 or younger killed by (non-Latino) whites. That means black youths were 13 times more likely to be killed by a black person than by a white one.”

According to the FBI’s 2011 crime statistics, 3,327 whites were killed that year in homicides, of which all but 550 were committed by other whites. Similarly, of the 2,720 blacks murdered that year, 2,459 were killed by other blacks. Only 8 percent of all murders consist of blacks killing whites; in just 4 percent of cases did a white person murder a black person. Had the jury ruled that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, which it did not, that murder would still have been one of the least likely of violent crimes to take place in the United States.

After the reckless commentary on cable and in print following the verdict, it seemed likely that the media-manufactured racial crisis surrounding the Zimmerman trial would be without any redeeming value. The trial’s “effect of inflaming passions without enlightening,” as National Journal’s Matthew Cooper put it, might have passed without serving a single constructive purpose had it not been for the president’s correct assertion that racial tensions are gradually easing.

The Zimmerman trial and the ensuing verdict have given all Americans an opportunity to confront their biases, examine both the welcome and frustrating truths about racial progress in this country, and conduct a largely productive conversation about racial equality before the law. It also allows us to understand yet again why the media are among the least trusted and most scorned of American institutions—and why that scorn is deserved.

About the Author

Noah C. Rothman is a columnist for the website Mediaite.

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