Manipulation by the Media: Lessons to be Learned from Zimmerman v. NBC

George ZimmermanNow more than ever, journalism appears to be no longer about reporting facts or the search for truth, but instead about manipulating facts to maximize ratings. A case in point is the complaint George Zimmerman filed last December against NBC. The complaint alleges NBC’s use of edited 911 audio, as part of its coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death, was defamatory and an intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The transcript of the 911 call, released by the City of Sanford, begins as follows:

Dispatcher: Sanford Police Department. . . .

Zimmerman: Hey we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. 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 white, black, or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He’s [unintelligible], he was just staring . . .

Dispatcher: OK, he’s just walking around the area . . .

Zimmerman: . . . looking at all the houses.

Dispatcher: OK . . .

Zimmerman: Now he’s just staring at me.

Dispatcher: OK – you said it’s 1111 Retreat View? Or 111?

Zimmerman: That’s the clubhouse . . .

Dispatcher: That’s the clubhouse, do you know what the – he’s near the clubhouse right now?

Zimmerman: Yeah, now he’s coming towards me.

Dispatcher: OK.

Zimmerman: He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.

Zimmerman’s complaint alleges “NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, and so set about to create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain,” reported a “reprehensible series of imaginary and exaggerated racist claims,” and created a “false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman’s own words, splicing together disparate parts of the [911] recording to create the illusion of statements that Zimmerman never actually made.” The complaint describes three ways in which the 911 was spliced. NBC initially edited the call as follows:

Zimmerman: There is a real suspicious guy. Ah, this guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something. He looks black.

The next day, NBC broadcast a different edit:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.

Two days later, a third edit was broadcast on the Today Show:

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

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah, a dark hoodie.

What all three edits have in common is that each hides that Zimmerman described Martin as black and as wearing a hoodie only in response to the 911 operator’s questions about race and clothing.

Zimmerman claims that NBC, in a much more egregious editing of the 911 call, falsely reported that he said “coons” despite the official transcript having recorded it as “[unintelligible].”  Zimmerman claims he said “punks” while other interpretations have been “cold,” “course,” and “goons” (short for a local Florida gang called the “Goon Squad”).

Zimmerman’s complaint alleges NBC “recognized the extraordinary public damage caused by these manipulated edits, stating during their March 27, 2012 broadcast: ‘[A]ll of this is igniting more demands for an arrest.’” Providing concrete details to the damage incurred by Zimmerman, the complaint alleges “Zimmerman has suffered greatly, with death threats, a bounty placed on his head, threats of capture, and a constant, genuine fear for his life resulting in his need to, among other things, live in hiding and wear a bullet proof vest. Zimmerman was even dismissed from his college because the school felt the death threats were dangerous to fellow students.” He “has also experienced various severe physical manifestations of his fear, anxiety and concern, including but not limited to, insomnia, nausea, and extreme anxiety.” The facts alleged in the complaint appear to state viable claims under Florida law, and may result in significant damages.

After internal investigation of the edited 911 call, the network president apologized to its viewers (not to Zimmerman), stating that airing edited versions was “a mistake and not a deliberate act to misrepresent the phone call.” However, NBC’s attorney later stated “there is no legitimate basis for Zimmerman’s claims,” as NBC “fairly and accurately reported about a news event that has captivated the nation.” Left unexplained was how manipulation of audio tape egregious enough to be acknowledged as a mistake on national television could constitute fair and accurate reporting.

NBC’s alleged manipulation of Zimmerman’s 911 call seems to exemplify a larger problem with the media, which seems ready – when a story appears capable of being elevated into a news event that can captivate the nation – to manipulate public perception through fear, emotion, and withholding of information.

Zimmerman’s trial itself was prompted by the media.  He was not arrested until after the media released a poll claiming 75% of the public wanted an arrest. It was only after the poll’s release that a special prosecutor was appointed to bring charges against Zimmerman.

Once charges were brought, the media focused on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute (Fla. Stat. § 776.013) as an underlying factor in Trayvon Martin’s death. The statute broadens the right to self-defense to include areas outside one’s home. A defendant can request a pretrial determination that the use of force was justifiable (Fla. Stat. § 776.032). If the judge so determines, the defendant acquires criminal and civil immunity for that use of force. Despite all the “Stand Your Ground” scrutiny, Zimmerman never invoked the statute by requesting a pretrial determination. Nonetheless, those in the media with a gun control agenda used the events leading up to Zimmerman’s trial to incite emotional responses by the public.

The death of Trayvon Martin was also characterized as an egregious civil rights crime comparable to the murder of Emmett Till. Such a comparison is an injustice to Emmett Till’s memory and the Civil Rights Movement. Martin was a 17-year-old self-described “gangsta”; his phone had text messages about drug use, fighting, and guns. He was not the 12-year-old in the picture used repeatedly by the media. It was later reported the reason Martin was in Sanford was because his mother kicked him out of her house following his third school suspension (for having a plastic bag containing traces of marijuana and a pipe). His first suspension was for truancy. The second suspension was for graffiti, and during a search of his bag, officials turned up women’s jewelry and a burglary tool.

Is Zimmerman racist for suspecting Martin to being up to no good when Martin was walking around in the rain looking at the houses in a gated community? Is a person not allowed to call 911 to report a suspicious person if that person has not yet committed a crime? The answers are no. The reason the public believes Zimmerman is racist is because of how the media chose to report the story. Zimmerman alleges that NBC cut out parts of his 911 call to make it look like he was focused on race. But he did not describe Martin’s race or clothes until he was asked to do so by the 911 operator.

Interestingly, NBC’s response to Zimmerman’s complaint included the claim that, were Zimmerman convicted of the second-degree murder charge, “that fact alone [would] constitute substantial evidence that the destruction of his reputation is the result of his own criminal conduct, and not of the broadcasts at issue which, like countless other news reports disseminated by media entities throughout the country, reported on the underlying events.” This is interesting not because of Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal, but because it suggests that journalistic ethics can be held in abeyance in the presence of a tragedy.  But the undisputed fact that Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy does not justify or warrant media conduct in apparent disregard of Zimmerman’s individual rights.

Unlike lawyers, journalists are not bound by rules of evidence or civil procedure, and can make allegations without showing proof beyond a reasonable doubt (or even proof by a preponderance of the evidence). In trial by media, a person is guilty until proven innocent and, as Zimmerman’s example shows, a courtroom acquittal may leave unaffected the public’s perception of you once the media has deemed you guilty.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mitchell Scott

    Excellent Article. Part of me thinks this is a rhetorical question and part a question that needs a answer. But, was such an article available in the mainstream media leading up to the arrest and trial? Or was it available in the “media” period? If journalists are only bound by viewer numbers and ad revenues rather than context and fact – where do we go from here?

  2. David Papke

    There are many individual journalists who take their ethical responsibilites genuinely to heart, but it’s worth noting that the media are parts of a very sophisticated culture industry. The industry generates “product” for profit. Coverage of the Zimmerman arrest and trial is one of countless examples.

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