Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called “Widow’s Web” about two politically charged, media-driven murder cases. The subject was all anybody in Arkansas talked about for a couple of years. The book documented how an audience worked into a frenzy by a histrionic murderer with big blue eyes, a publicity-mad county sheriff and slipshod, sensational media coverage helped to compound a tragedy by ruining a good man’s life.
I can still remember my astonishment upon realizing that front-page trial coverage in the state’s leading newspaper depicted not the actual testimony and crime scene photos, but an imaginary scenario calculated to cast suspicion on the victim’s husband. Media accounts also falsely depicted a man who lost everything due to his wife’s death as inheriting a fortune.
“It was the popular thing to believe,” one Little Rock detective told me. “You could ask the ladies under every hair dryer in every beauty shop in Arkansas if McArthur was involved, and they’d say yes. They didn’t have to know a thing about the case. They just knew.”
And they were completely deluded.
Writing the book was a life-changing experience. I’ve never read a newspaper or watched a TV news program the same way since — particularly not about a homicide trial.
For the record, that’s where I’m coming from regarding the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin murder trial in Florida — a lamentable tragedy of errors marketed as a multimedia morality play on the combustible theme of race. It makes me crazy to see what I call the Mighty MSNBC Art Players and other media figures fictionalize, dissemble and play fast and loose with facts. The case is troubling enough without turning the participants into political symbols.
For example, I don’t care how many times you hear that Zimmerman defied police orders not to get out of his truck and “stalked” Martin like a rabbit hunter. There’s no evidence that happened. By the time the dispatcher suggested “we don’t need you to do that, OK?” he’d been walking for some time. His story is that he was returning to the vehicle when the kid confronted him.
Maybe so, maybe not. But there’s scant evidence to the contrary.
Millions invest more emotion in the outcome of highly publicized trials than sports fans place in the Super Bowl. It’s bad enough to see people choosing sides based upon political preference and race, without their being encouraged to do so. That way lies folly. Whether or not George Zimmerman is found guilty — and I don’t see how the jury gets past reasonable doubt — the outcome shouldn’t be about his race, Trayvon Martin’s, yours or mine.
So anyway, here’s somewhere else I’m coming from: My Irish-Catholic father had a credo he must have repeated to me a million times growing up: “You’re no better than anybody else, and NOBODY’S BETTER THAN YOU.” He mostly meant that Irish people were as good as everybody, not really an issue when I was growing up.
However, I’ve never come up with a better way of thinking about issues of class and identity. It’s bedrock Americanism, and my personal credo.
So when I read coverage like Lizette Alvarez’s “Zimmerman Case Has Race as a Backdrop, but You Won’t Hear It in Court,” in The New York Times, my first instinct is to think that’s on balance a good thing. Not so to most of those Alvarez spoke with. “For members of the African-American community, it’s a here-we-go-again moment,” a Florida professor said.
“Others,” we’re told, “place Trayvon Martin’s name next to those of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo and other black men who were abused, beaten or killed by police officers.”
Again, maybe so, and maybe not.
I’d respond that it’s possible to totally get that in an intellectual and emotional way without agreeing that the Zimmerman jury should consider it for a moment. It’s also easy to recall instances like the Tawana Brawley episode and the Duke lacrosse team prosecution where similarly emotional appeals led to manifest injustices.
Wisdom rarely resides in calls to ethnic solidarity. George Zimmerman’s got a right not to be judged on account of his race, too.
I like the way Eric Zorn put it in his Chicago Tribune blog:
“Martin could have been carrying a stolen TV set and walking away from a house where the burglar alarm was blaring and that wouldn’t have given Zimmerman the right to shoot him.
“Zimmerman could have been wearing Klan robes and that wouldn’t have given Martin the right to attack and thrash him.”
On the evidence, it’s clear that both Zimmerman and Martin acted badly, with tragic consequences — Zimmerman by carrying around that accursed gun he was in no way qualified to handle, and Martin through foolhardy teenaged bravado. One life ended, another destroyed.
But not necessarily symbols of anything greater than their own confusion and folly.
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.” You can email Lyons at email@example.com.