The Muted News of the Zimmerman Lawsuit


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In April of last year we published an article entitled “Washington Post Distorts Trayvon Martin News.”  We described in that article how NBC News in their coverage of the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin by Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman had irresponsibly biased the public against Zimmerman.  They had done so, we noted, by editing the tape of Zimmerman’s call to 911 to make him sound like a racist.  It was clear from the nature of the editing that this was no innocent mistake on NBC’s part.  In fact, I described it at the time as “virtually criminal journalistic malpractice.”


Zimmerman’s legal advisers apparently agreed with me.  My ears perked up a couple of days ago when the local NBC affiliate, beginning its coverage of the Zimmerman trial for second degree murder, noted that Zimmerman had sued their parent company for defamation, but that NBC was vigorously fighting the case.  The same short announcement was made later on NBC’s Nightly News.


“Wow!  This is really big,” I thought.  I couldn’t wait to see what The Washington Post had to say about it the next day.  Well, what do you know?  The Post had nothing to say about it the next day.  A Google search told me why.  As it turns out, this was quite old news.  Zimmerman had filed the lawsuit back on December 6, 2012.  I just didn’t know about it because I depend for my news on The Post, regular local and network TV and radio, and, I like to think, a considerably above average collection of alternative web sites and politically aware informants. 


As it turns out, the news of the suit was reported at the time by CNN and NPR and the Orlando Sentinel and perhaps a few other news outlets, but for all the general attention it received, it might as well not have been reported.  Compared to the brass band of coverage of the case in general, this news was more on the order of a town crier with laryngitis.   It’s one of the purest examples of #14 in the Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression, which we describe as “bump-and-run” reporting. 


It’s quite a shame, because there has actually been some good reporting on the lawsuit, which, unfortunately, very few people seem to know about.  Some excerpts from the CNN report capture the flavor:


George Zimmerman, charged in the shooting death of a 17-year-old Florida boy, is suing NBC Universal for using "the oldest form of yellow journalism" by editing an audio tape of his 911 call to make him sound racist, the lawsuit says…


"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," the lawsuit says.


"Because of NBC's deceptive and exploitative manipulations, the public wrongly believes that Zimmerman 'use(d) a racial epithet' while describing Martin during the call to the dispatcher on that fateful night," the suit says….


The defamation lawsuit accuses the network of sensationalizing and manipulating a potential "racial powder keg that would result in months, if not years, of topics for their failing news program, particularly the plummeting ratings for their ailing Today Show."


The edited recordings included multiple deletions, removed intervening dialogue between Zimmerman and the dispatcher, and juxtaposed unrelated content "to make it appear that Zimmerman was a racist, and that he was racially profiling Trayvon Martin," the lawsuit says….


The suit accuses the network of malice, highlighting correspondent Ron Allen's segment on "The Today Show" on March 27.


"Allen's broadcast removed a critical aspect of the dialogue between Zimmerman and the dispatcher, bringing the 'up to no good' and 'he looks black' statements even closer together, to further the false and defamatory implication that Zimmerman had said he believed Martin was 'up to no good' because 'he looks black,'" the suit says.


The lawsuit accuses NBC of falsely claiming that Zimmerman said "f------ coons" on the February 26 call.


"The truth, as known to the defendants, was that Zimmerman said 'f------ punks' and there was no evidence, or reason to believe, that Zimmerman uttered a racial epithet during the call," the suit says.

Zimmerman mentioned Martin's race only when prompted by the dispatcher, the suit says.


NBC never aired an "earnest" retraction and never apologized to Zimmerman, who has since experienced death threats, a bounty on his head and a genuine fear for his life, the suit says. He now lives in hiding, court documents say.


So, as it turns out, NBC’s actions were even worse than we thought.  They apparently put racist words in Zimmerman’s mouth that weren’t there in the first place. 


Not that it hurts his case in the least, but Zimmerman’s lawyer seems to have a rather naēve and mistaken view as to what might have motivated NBC to defame his client in such a disreputable fashion.  His big mistake is to treat the network, or any of our big media organizations, as primarily a commercial venture whose purpose is to maximize profit.  They have proved over and over again that they are primarily propagandists.  The story of George Zimmerman as the crazed, white racist trigger-happy vigilante gunning down an innocent black teenager served the propaganda interests of the big media just too well for them to forgo a little embellishment.  And NBC achieved no particular competitive advantage through their dirty deed.  The rest of the big media jumped right on the “racial profiling” bandwagon that NBC had done so much to build.  Only very recently I heard a reporter on NPR describe the upcoming Zimmerman trial as a case of self-defense from the defense perspective versus a case of racial profiling from the point of view of the prosecution.


As the case has been framed, it serves the purposes of the divide-and-conquer propagandists to perfection.   It divides blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, and those who are pro-gun and those who are anti-gun.  At the same time it keeps us distracted from the fact of near monolithic control of the country by our criminal ruling clique.  No, if selling newspapers or advertisements were what they were mainly about, they would be doing a lot more real news reporting.  To take one obvious example, they wouldn’t be hushing up the scandal of the murder last month by the FBI of the Chechen Ibragim Todashev just a few miles to the south of where the Zimmerman-Martin tragedy took place.  To cite an even better example, they wouldn’t be sitting on the news of this rather spectacular lawsuit, as they have clearly done.  When it’s their agenda versus the bottom line, it’s always the agenda that wins out.


The Post’s Two-Track News


The Washington Post with its parallel reporting on the lawsuit provides a representative example of our propaganda press at work.  For that part of the newspaper that a rather large but declining number of people still read, it isn’t even news.  My Google search of “Zimmerman lawsuit Washington Post” and my daily reading of the paper suggest to me that only their online blogger on the media, Erik Wemple, has told us that it happened.  Nothing, essentially, has changed from my earlier article on the subject when it was clear that Wemple was doing the honest reporting while the main newspaper was handling the dishonest part, the agenda-driven propaganda.  And considering how hard The Post makes it even to find Wemple’s articles, I dare say that he could hardly get many more hits on his web site than I do on mine.


As it happens, his three obscure articles that I found on the lawsuit are among the most clear-headed and informative that one is likely to find, and I recommend them to you, except that he begins the first article by mischaracterizing NBC’s sly hatchet work as “a well-publicized editing error.”   Wemple’s articles came in one short volley, two on December 6, 2012 and another the next day.  They are entitled “George Zimmerman sues NBC over Trayvon Martin reports,” “Can George Zimmerman prevail against NBC?” and “Why didn’t NBC News apologize to George Zimmerman?”


Wemple begins the answer to the title question of the second article like this:


For the purposes of a libel case, then, Zimmerman should have little trouble proving that NBC News broadcast false and defamatory material about him. The stiff legal challenge for Zimmerman & Co. lies in another phase of the proceedings, and that is proving damages from NBC’s treatment.


Just why should that be so difficult? Because of media saturation. Think back to March: What news outlet — local, national, international — sat out the Trayvon Martin case? Cable news appeared to talk about nothing but. Newspapers had their reporters covering every step of the police investigation/quasi investigation, and their opinion writers opining on the case’s lessons for race and criminal justice in America. There was only one way to escape it all: a cabin.


Wemple is certainly right about the over-the-top media saturation, but there is no reason why media saturation per se should have been so damaging to Zimmerman’s reputation.  The big problem with it is that for the most part it has been premised upon the misperception that NBC created and has made little effort to rectify.


With its virtually secret reporting through the Wemple channel, The Washington Post has done little to rectify it, either.  And it’s not like they’re treating all lawsuits for defamation as trivial.  Just a couple of days ago on page A15 they reported, complete with a photograph of the aggrieved party, that a federal appeals court has given former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod the go-ahead for her suit against bloggers Larry O’Connor and the late Andrew Breitbart.  When it comes to The Post’s guarding of a reputation, fellow media giant NBC is apparently one thing, while a little-known blogger is something else.


David Martin

June 27, 2013





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