#1 Most-Read of 2013: Martin v. Zimmerman: The media at its worst

No. 1: Everything I initially wrote about the Trayvon Martin killing was based on network news reports. And it was almost entirely wrong.
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Did the media demonize George Zimmerman?

No. 1: Everything I initially wrote about the Trayvon Martin killing was based on network news reports. And it was almost entirely wrong.

This was the most read story on Crosscut during 2013. It originally appeared on July 15.

In my KOMO radio commentary of March 23, 2012, I said the following about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman:

“Thinking of 17-year old Trayvon the way we’d think of our own kids is exactly how to view this tragedy. The man who police say shot him, George Zimmerman, is a 28-year old CrimeWatch volunteer, who apparently did just about everything a Crimewatch volunteer SHOULDN’T do, such as following the 17 year old teen when a 911 dispatcher advised him not to, confronting him when he had no business doing so, and shooting him. Mr. Zimmerman was not standing his ground against an aggressor, he WAS the aggressor.  And Trayvon Martin received the death penalty for walking home in the rain wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and carrying a pack of candy.”

Everything I said was based on what the network news media had been reporting, and continued to report for months. And it was almost entirely wrong. 

Eyewitness testimony and physical evidence backs up George Zimmerman’s claim that he was neither the physical aggressor, nor even “standing his ground” that night. He was confronted by an angry Martin, who knocked him down with a punch to the nose and proceeded to pummel him. (There is no evidence of a “fight,” but abundant evidence of an assault). 

Trayvon Martin was shot not “walking home in the rain wearing a hooded sweatshirt,”but while straddling Zimmerman MMA style, beating him senseless, bloodying his face and punching or pounding his head against the concrete sidewalk.  

The most disputed question that night — who was screaming for help before the shot was fired by Zimmerman? — has family and friends on both sides divided. But it raises another question that essentially answers itself: Who would more likely scream for help? The person being beaten, or the one doing the beating?

One of the most important, and remarkably under-publicized facts that came out at trial is that one of the detectives, while interrogating Zimmerman at the police station that night, told him that the entire incident had been caught on surveillance video. The detective was bluffing, but Zimmerman didn’t know that. His reaction: “Thank God”.

“Thank God.” How many people who do something wrong, lie about it and are told it’s on tape react that way? 

Zimmerman certainly made mistakes that night; he should have stayed in his car. But they were mistakes in judgment. So weak was the criminal case against him that many were predicting his acquittal two days into the trial before the defense had even presented its case.

So why are so many people upset and angry about the verdict?

Because they still believe what I believed in that commentary a year and a half ago.   

The news media, aided by activists like Al Sharpton, made this entire saga about race from the very beginning. When the racial narrative didn’t fit, the media distorted evidence, doctored audio tape or misled the public about the facts until it did. As Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara said after the verdict, the press turned Zimmerman, a man who mentored young African American school kids, into a “monster.”

Columnist John Nolte from Bigjournalism.com (the people who caught NBC editing a tape to make Zimmerman appear racist) compiled a superb timeline of the media’s race-crime narrative, supplemented with links. Some highlights:

On March 13, 2012, Al Sharpton interviewed the Martin family’s attorney Benjamin Crump, who described Zimmerman as white and claimed that it was Zimmerman who approached Trayvon Martin. The Associated Press had also erroneously described Zimmerman, a Hispanic, as white.

On March 21, 2012, CNN falsely accused Zimmerman of muttering the word “coon” when he called authorities. That was false, but not corrected by CNN for two weeks, long after it had influenced the media angle that Zimmerman was motivated by racial hostility.

On March 22, 2012, when it became clear that Zimmerman was Hispanic (Latina mom, white dad), the New York Times used a new term to describe Zimmerman: “White Hispanic.” Talk about reaching. People would rightfully take umbrage if the Times described the President of the United States as a “White African American.”

Also on March 22nd, at a Florida rally designed to build racial tension and force an arrest of Zimmerman, Al Sharpton stated “Trayvon could have been any one of our sons…” One day later, President Barack Obama echoed that line: “If I had a son," said the president. "he would look like Trayvon.” The racial narrative was set in stone. 

It was reinforced by NBC four days later, when it edited Zimmerman’s call to police to make him look like a racist. Here is what NBC reported Zimmerman said:

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good.  He looks black.”

Here’s the actual exchange between Zimmerman and the police dispatcher:

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 few days after that, ABC claimed that Zimmerman wasn’t injured the night the shooting took place, airing a blurry video of Zimmerman at the police station and stating that “a police surveillance video taken the night Trayvon Martin was shot dead shows no blood or bruises on George Zimmerman.”

As Nolte pointed out, ABC didn’t even bother to enhance the video before running with the report.  

A day after that, when ABC’s report was sweeping the nation, NBC’s Chris Matthews backed up ABC’s version, even though one of his Hardball guests pointed out, with pictures, that Zimmerman’s head did show cuts and bleeding.

On April 9th, PBS anchor Gwen Ifill, again described Zimmerman as “white” and that he shot Martin after a “disputed altercation.”

Two days later, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey charged Zimmerman with Second Degree Murder.

And you wonder why so many people still despise George Zimmerman?

Liberal Harvard Law professor, Alan Dershowitz, to his credit, says that Corey’s decision to charge Zimmerman with Murder 2 was outrageous, politically motivated, based on a false affidavit and worthy of disbarment. Even when Judge Debra Nelson allowed an eleventh-hour request by prosecutors to convict Zimmerman on lesser grounds of manslaughter, the jury still cleared him. 

What happened that night in Sanford Florida is a tragedy that cost one young man his life and likely ruined the life of another. But as an African-American minister told me, this trial needed to be about truth, not race. For the media, which distorted George Zimmerman’s ethnicity, his words and his injuries, it was precisely the opposite.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.