Three major news organizations, NBC, ABC and CNN, were forced to “walk back,” as they like to say—as though they’ve merely started a waltz instead of a cha-cha—from previous reporting on the Trayvon Martin case. The backstepping led to what was surely one of the most satisfying headlines penned by a Fox News employee: “3rd News Network Admits to False Reporting on Zimmerman.”
In the case of NBC, the network edited a 911 call Zimmerman made so that it sounded as though he volunteered the information that Martin was black. In fact, he only mentioned Martin’s race after being asked by the dispatcher. With CNN, folks at the network got into what I like to call a wolfblitz—defined as the sexually aroused state news anchors get into when they think they have a scoop. It led CNN to claim Zimmerman used the word “coon” to describe Martin; two weeks later, they walked it back because, well, he didn’t. In the case of ABC, the network initially reported there was no video evidence to suggest any injury to Zimmerman’s bald pate; later, someone over there pressed the zoom button and discovered there was a gash on his head after all.
Walk it back, cha cha cha.
I present these findings glibly because it’s so hard, in the age of The Daily Show, to take TV news seriously. But a lot of people do. And the implications of these mistakes are enormous—one report can lead to an entire movement. The NBC mistake was particularly problematic because so much of the outrage is predicated on the notion of Zimmerman profiling Martin based on race—which he may have. At some point, we might have been able to have a productive conversation about what racial profiling means in the context of a Latino man and an African-American teenager in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. That would have been a conversation based on reality. But who cares about such sly cultural distinctions when you can keep it short with a snappy edit?
Every time a network admits it has misrepresented George Zimmerman, it makes a hero of a man who murdered an unarmed youth. Each mainstream media error makes Zimmerman a martyr for the right wing. The mistakes create a backlash against the activism and passion surrounding the case, and muddy the waters—and when the waters are dark, the perpetrator disappears. It worked very well for Dominique Strauss Kahn.
The latest wrinkle? Miami New Times reported there were neo-Nazis prowling Sanford to monitor activities. From whom did they get this information? Why, the Nazis themselves. The story was unquestioningly picked up by Daily Beast, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Huffington Post, Gawker and other credible (and less credible) sources. One problem: It’s false. It appears the alt weekly owned by Village Voice Media has reduced its fact-checking staff … to zero. And those other places? Feh. Why fact-check when you can aggregate?
Now we’ve got Slate and CNN and other eager-beaver media outlets interviewing eyewitnesses who would hardly pass the smell test in a courtroom. The majority of innocent people convicted in the U.S. are sent to prison based on “eyewitness” testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. Getting overheated about these eyewitnesses is just temporary, though: They’ll get their backlash too. Once again, we’ll have suffered through more “news” only to have less information.
Sadly for Martin’s family, all the activism and dialogue and TV programs and articles surrounding their son’s death—the great fog of information juiced by the media—won’t help them. At some point, there was probably an opportunity for a quiet investigation into Zimmerman, one built to withstand a criminal court case involving Stand Your Ground laws. Now there’s no hope of that. The family won’t get justice, either. There’s just too much noise for truth to emerge, and you can’t have justice without truth. You can, however, have ratings.