Fear of an Honest Media

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer at the Atlantic, one of the "Voices" highlighted in the online magazine's sidebar, along with Jeffrey Goldberg and James Fallows. Coates is the Atlantic's go-to guy for stories about race and the black experience in America. That's not to say it's the only thing he writes about, but it is the touchstone.

For instance, last week Ta-Nehisi posted a video of Spud Webb winning the NBA's annual dunk competition in 1986. It's a great sports story about a 5'7" underdog who is expected to be a sideshow in the competition and winds up wowing the crowd and his fellow players with his skill. It's a story that everyone can appreciate, but in Coates's hands it's rendered into a rather strained racial metaphor:

The idea that a 5'7'' point guard could take the dunk title was something more than just a "feel good" story. It confirmed something particular about our black lives. 

It was the artistry of raising up out of the hood, and against all limitations, defying the very rules of gravity. To be black is to be 5'7" and charged with dunking in the NBA. OK, not quite, but do you see where I'm going?

If you do see where he's going you'll have a skeleton key for a great deal of his output. Which brings us to his feature story from last week, "Fear of a Black President." His central thesis is that President Obama is forced to walk a fine line between being black enough to win black support and being "half as black" in order to maintain a semblance of white acceptance.

This is actually an interesting concept. My problem is not so much with an examination of these ideas in general as it is with some of the specific ways Ta-Nehisi marshals facts to support his case. To put it bluntly, he cheats. Spud Webb didn't need a springboard.

The centerpiece of the article is an examination of the Trayvon Martin case, and President Obama's role in altering the national debate. As Coates sees it, the moment Obama spoke up there was an immediate backlash in favor of George Zimmerman:

The notion that Zimmerman might be the real victim began seeping out into the country, aided by PR efforts by his family and legal team, as well as by various acts of stupidity—Spike Lee tweeting Zimmerman’s address (an act made all the more repugnant by the fact that he had the wrong Zimmerman), NBC misleadingly editing a tape of Zimmerman’s phone conversation with a police dispatcher to make Zimmerman seem to be racially profiling Martin...

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

Trayvon Martin was killed nearly a month before the President weighed in on the story. During that month, his family, with the help of far-left media outlets like Current TV, began seeking to make the story into a national tragedy. The storyline was simple: black teen walking home from 7-11 is stalked and murdered by man who thought he looked suspicious because he was black. It was a story that seemed to be supported by all the evidence.

Before Obama spoke up, the New York Times ran a story on the case, in which a lawyer for the Martin family described a 911 call in which she could hear "a 17-year-old boy pleading for his life, and someone shot him in cold blood." Just one day later the Times noted that Zimmerman's family said it was his voice yelling for help on the tape.

Before Obama spoke up, left wing news sites like the Huffington Post were spreading word of a possible "racial slur" audible in the 911 call made by George Zimmerman the night of the shooting. As a matter of fact, Ta-Nehisi himself weighed in on the racial slur before Obama's comments, saying it was "clear as day" to him:

The question at hand is whether Zimmerman muttered "fucking coons" during the 911 call minutes before he killed Trayvon Martin. Several people whom I respect--all of them black actually--don't hear it. When I listened, I heard it immediately and in this CNN account, I hear it clear as day. I don't know what that means. 

Before Obama spoke up, WTVJ's Jeff Burnside placed an ellipsis in the text of George Zimmerman's 911 call so that it read "This guy looks like he’s up to no good … he looks black." That story (since corrected) was picked up the next day by MSNBC. Eventually the extremely misleading error would make it onto the Today show.

Before Obama spoke up, the image of Trayvon that was presented to the world was that of a baby-faced kid in a red T-shirt. The photo had been given to the media by the Martin family. When Obama said that if he'd had a son he'd have looked like Trayvon, he could have been thinking of this photo of a child about the same age as his daughter. In reality, Trayvon was 17, still slim but also a 6'0" football player. He wasn't a kid anymore.

It was at this point, with the deck stacked heavily in favor of Zimmerman's guilt, that the President weighed in with his comments about Trayvon. Of course Obama didn't draw any firm conclusions about the case. He didn't have to. The media had laid all the ground work for him to coolly walk in and proclaim his concern.

This was nothing new for Obama. He'd played the same hand in Tucson in 2011. After a week of the left-wing media openly blaming the right for the actions of a schizophrenic with no political affiliation, Obama strolled in to talk about raising the tone of the debate. He didn't have to explain who he meant. The media had done that for him.

But not long after Obama spoke up, the media narrative about Trayvon Martin began to collapse. In fact, on March 23rd, the same day Obama spoke to the press, an observant blogger noticed what NBC had done with its ellipsis in the 911 call. He posted this in the comments at another blog. Eventually, thanks in part to Breitbart News, this fact made its way back to the head honchos at NBC. Two producers were fired over the "mistake"--including the author of the original story, Jeff Burnside.

The bit about the racial slur supposedly used by George Zimmerman gained some initial support a few days after the President spoke. CNN enhanced the audio and a reporter claimed he could hear the word "coons" in the tape. Then, a few days later, CNN enhanced the audio again and came up with a new theory. Zimmerman hadn't said "coons"--he'd said "cold." It had been a cold night when the shooting happened. The FBI had considered charging Zimmerman with a hate crime, but a thorough investigation later found no evidence that race was a factor.

Five days after Obama spoke, ABC News published a story claiming the video of Zimmerman's interview showed no evidence of any wounds to his head. This was significant because Zimmerman had claimed Martin was the aggressor the night of his death, and that Martin had slammed his head into the concrete multiple times while Zimmerman cried for help. One week later, after the Daily Caller enhanced one frame of the video to show an obvious gash on Zimmerman's skull, ABC retracted the bulk of its claim and revealed an enhanced video which showed the damage to the back of Zimmerman's head. The new story instead claimed no evidence Zimmerman had a broken nose. Later reports confirmed Zimmerman had a "painful" broken nose.

Eight days after Obama spoke, the AP wrote a story noting that the photo of the two men involved in the case had presented a false image of both Martin and Zimmerman. A professor of visual journalism told the AP, "When you have such a lopsided visual comparison, it just stands to reason that people would rush to judgment."

The idea that public opinion in the Martin case hinged on President Obama's comments is absurd. The myths about the Martin case--the non-existent racial slur, the reference to Martin's race in the 911 call only after he was asked, the supposed lack of injuries to Zimmerman's head and face, the misleading photo of Tryavon as a child--all of these phony facts were stacked up like dominoes by the time Obama spoke up. That they began to fall the same day is a coincidence. The people who pushed back on these stories weren't out to get the president--they were out to hold the media accountable for their incredibly sloppy and one-sided work. And to a great degree, they succeeded.

When confronted with the falsehoods in their presentation, the media slowly started covering the story with a modicum of fairness. They dropped the misleading photo of Trayvon as a child and the mug shot of an overweight Zimmerman. They took a second look at injuries to Zimmerman's head and and to the audio that they'd previously claimed contained a racial slur. They fired two people responsible for an edit that made Zimmerman sound like an unabashed racist. And they noted that some of the witnesses agreed with Zimmerman's claim that he'd been flat on his back with Martin  on top of him before the shooting took place. 

In other words, the media finally did its job.

If Ta-Nehisi Coates is looking for a reason why the Martin case stopped being a "trans-partisan" issue, he has a sufficient explanation. The story we'd all been told at the time Obama spoke out simply wasn't true. When people heard a fuller account of the facts, it turned out it wasn't so black and white. As already pointed out, the FBI determined race was not a factor in Zimmerman's behavior. Ta-Nehisi skips over this conclusion like everything else that is detrimental to his case--but it undercuts the heart of his contention about what took place. The narrative around the Martin case didn't collapse because Obama spoke; it collapsed because it was built on lies.

As for Coates's broader point: Americans don't fear a black president--we fear a dishonest one who, like the media in the early days of the Martin case, only offers one side of a complicated story.


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