The Conversation

Big Media and the Trayvon Martin Case: Wrong from Minute One

Jacob Sullum at Reason has an interesting piece about how Big Media's reporting on the Trayvon Martin story has been fundamentally wrong - in a way that they had to get deliberately wrong - from the very first minutes of the "scandal."  You may recall that the original outrage - the detail that kicked the story onto every front page in Florida, then national news - was the Sanford P.D.'s refusal to arrest George Zimmerman, who was so obviously guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin.  Even if a trial might potentially have cleared Zimmerman of murder charges, how in the world could those racist cops have failed to arrest him on the spot?  

Angry cries from local community leaders, and later big out-of-town activists, found their way into every media report.  If you lived in Florida, you got a few days of this storyline before it broke into national news.  A white man shot a little black boy just because he was walking in a gated community, and the cops didn't even arrest him!  This swiftly transitioned into a gun-control wail of anguish about Florida's supposedly crazy "stand your ground" laws, which effectively gave trigger-happy neighborhood watch loons a license to kill.

Everything about this narrative fell apart, from Zimmerman not being white to Trayvon not being an innocent little tyke (remember how the first wave of Big Media coverage invariably used photos of a cherubic, smiling Martin that were several years old?) to the fact - known from Minute One of this story, to any reporter who bothered reading the police reports - that Zimmerman had an understandable reason for pulling that trigger, because Martin was beating the crap out of him.  But even that very first "outrageous" detail was nothing of the kind, as Sullum points out at Reason, and every reporter in the United States should have known it:

The police said they did not charge Zimmerman right away because of a provision that prohibits a law enforcement agency from arresting someone who claims to have used deadly force in self-defense "unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful." In other words, the fact that Zimmerman killed Martin (which he has always admitted) was not enough; the police also needed reason to doubt his self-defense claim. We can argue about whether that is a reasonable requirement, but it is completely distinct from the right to stand your ground. Even a state that imposes a duty to retreat could still require police to meet this test before arresting someone who claims self-defense.

From the beginning press coverage of this case has routinely conflated these issues, implying that Florida's definition of self-defense is so broad that it gave Zimmerman a license to kill in circumstances that did not justify the use of deadly force.

And as every reporter knew, the police had no reason to doubt his self-defense claim; he was beaten bloody when they arrived on the scene.  It's all in the very first incident reports filed by police officers and paramedics.  But Big Media went to insane lengths to conceal this fact; at one point, ABC News tried to air a "blockbuster expose" that "proved" Zimmerman wasn't injured, by running security-camera footage of him arriving at the police station long after the paramedics had cleaned him up, and even at that, ABC found it necessary to obscure a few moments of footage showing the bruised back of Zimmerman's head with their logo.

Sullum is particularly critical of the New York Times' deliberately dishonest coverage of the case (he notes they took pains to "obscure or misstate" the legal issues on numerous occasions.)  And we all know that the New York Times still shapes coverage for much of the remaining mainstream media herd.  I suspect a lot of the early coverage was shaped by a "rip and read" attitude toward press releases from the activists who descended upon Sanford; their statements were accepted as fact and given heavy coverage, while few in the mainstream press wanted to balance those big headlines with highly inconvenient facts from the police reports.  

(And it didn't help that the Sanford P.D. didn't handle public relations well during the early days of the story; the local government acted guilty and apologetic from the beginning, rather than standing their ground.  This could be taken as a lesson in the importance of standing up to mob rule.)

A lot of people had a vested interest in turning this tragic story into a national fable about race relations and gun control.  Big Media was very happy to oblige.  In fact, they're one of the groups that had such a vested interest, because the coverage brought big ratings, and every aspect of the false story fit comfortably with both their ideological biases, and their friendly connections to the grievance-mongers who brought this thing to the edge of riots.  And would we have gotten to that dangerous level of social pressure if Big Media hadn't distorted its reporting so much?


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