In my experience, whenever criminal cases turn into symbolic melodramas, reason goes out the door. Almost needless to say, I’m referring to the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin murder trial currently dominating cable TV news channels. Starting last February, what began as a lamentable tragedy was promoted as a multimedia morality play on the theme of racist brute vs. innocent child.
In consequence, millions of Americans gullible enough to believe what they see on TV developed passionate beliefs about the case shaped by tendentious and slipshod reporting. Even the most thoughtful citizens are vulnerable to the kind of disinformation promulgated by the Mighty MSNBC Art Players and others whose zeal for ratings-building melodrama trumps their commitment to facts.
During a recent online colloquy, a woman identifying herself as a Seattle criminal defense attorney (you never really know on the Internet) opined that the only reason George Zimmerman hadn’t been forced to plead guilty was that “the police did not do a proper investigation, and handled the case poorly (seriously, Martin is found with a cellphone on him, and they decide they can’t ID him and let his body sit in the morgue for a week?? That alone is unbelievable) … I find it appalling that a small town police agency thought they themselves could make a legal finding that a homicide was justified.”
Unbelievable indeed. Also categorically false, although MSNBC reported it many times. According to the case file released last May 18, Sanford, Fla. police notified Trayvon’s father of his death early the next morning. MSNBC personalities Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry, Lawrence O’Donnell and others also repeatedly alleged that indifferent local cops let George Zimmerman take his gun home, and failed to collect his clothing for forensic examination — also untrue. Indeed, the detective who handled the initial investigation recommended filing manslaughter charges March 13, 2012.
For reasons gradually becoming clearer at trial, the state prosecutor declined, urging police to keep investigating. But that’s not all. For weeks last spring, MSNBC broadcast dozens of segments on its primetime “news” programs ridiculing the idea that Zimmerman had been injured during his fatal encounter with Martin. Grainy video of the handcuffed suspect being escorted into the Sanford police department was shown repeatedly. Lawrence O’Donnell and New York Times columnist Charles Blow in particular made many scathing comments.
Then, after the prosecution file was released on May 18, 2012 with contemporaneous photographs and EMS reports detailing Zimmerman’s broken nose and scalp lacerations, something remarkable happened. Or rather, failed to happen. Instead of correcting manifest errors in its coverage — of which the above are but a sample — MSNBC went radio-silent.
As documented by my friend and mentor Bob Somerby on his Daily Howler website, no further mention of Martin or Zimmerman appeared on the network for weeks. It was a performance worthy of the Chinese People’s Daily or Fox News, whichever strikes you as the worse insult.
Now that Zimmerman’s trial is underway, it’s commendable to see Charles Blow acting like a journalist again. After the first week’s testimony, he wrote a column which, if overly reliant upon rhetorical questions with obvious answers he might not want to hear, concluded that, while Zimmerman bears undoubted moral responsibility for killing Trayvon Martin, “[l]egally, it remains to be seen whether he will be found guilty of second-degree murder.”
So did Zimmerman “profile” Trayvon Martin? Here’s an explanation deemed inadmissible by True Believers in the racist brute version of the story. An African-American neighbor explained it to Reuters soon after the crime. “There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood,” she said. “That’s why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin.”
Indeed, there had been a rash of burglaries and break-ins in the (multiracial) Twin Lakes community in the months preceding the fatal confrontation. Most of the suspects were young black men, and most did, in fact, get away. Had he known that, maybe young Martin might have acted differently when he felt himself followed by a “creepy ass cracker.”
But it’s impossible to know, partly because nobody knows exactly how he DID act.
Not that believers in the racial morality play have any doubt. Reading comments to Blow’s column and elsewhere, it’s striking how many seers and mind-readers affect to know not only precisely what happened on that terrible night, but the exact motives of everybody involved. Skeptics get attacked for their apostasy, with the dread “r-word” frequently employed. People even speculate that the defendant broke his own nose in the roughly 30 seconds before the Sanford police arrived.
However, to convict George Zimmerman of second-degree murder, a jury must imagine this scenario: Determined to kill an innocent stranger, a man first dials 911, stays on the phone while stalking his victim, remains at the crime scene rather than fleeing, surrenders peacefully, waives his Miranda rights and voluntarily answers hundreds of police questions.
Hard to believe, no?
• • •
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”