(Centennial fellow) Almost every Friday morning, a friend and I get together for strong coffee and bracing political discussion, and sometimes he will say journalists lie. No, I respond — they make mistakes and their biases pop through their reporting, but it’s not lying. What am I to argue now that we’ve learned about NBC News and the doctored tape?
On broadcasts to millions, NBC played a recording of a police officer’s conversation with George Zimmerman the night he shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman was patrolling his neighborhood as a citizen, called the cops, and, according to NBC’s version of the conversation, said he had been following someone who “looks like he is up to no good. He looks black.”
That’s not how the conversation actually went. Zimmerman said there was someone walking around looking “like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something,” and the officer on the other end asked, “Is he black, white or Hispanic?” Zimmerman responded that the man looked black.
The unchanged tape is a thousand miles distant from the mangled one, and NBC has said it is sorry for “an error made in the production process.” But that is evasive mumbo jumbo. The editing was not a technical issue of production. It was a substantive issue of content, and the “error” happened to fit a thesis of racist homicide while making the network look like a watchdog hero. It seems to me to have been error with a purpose.
Sadly, very, very sadly, this NBC incident is one of many possible examples of an outlandish, rules-be-damned rush to judgment in which reporters and commentators are playing the roles of crazed prosecutor, judge and jury not about to wait for evidence.
According to a news report on findings by the PEW Research Center, news outlets have been paying more attention to this story than any other. For a stretch, the MSNBC cable network spent half its time on it, and one of MSNBC’s hosts, longtime racial agitator Al Sharpton, has been leading protests. ABC embarrassed itself somewhat less than NBC when it claimed that a video of Zimmerman showed no signs he had been attacked by Martin. The issue matters because the reason police did not arrest Zimmerman was their believe he was defending himself. ABC was wrong about the video. It checked with forensic experts and changed its story.
Some of the bad journalism has been slightly more subtle, such as the frequent juxtaposition of a photo of an unshaven Zimmerman in a jail uniform next to a photo of Martin as an angelic looking kid. But there has also been journalism of the kind that produced an eyewitness who says he saw 6-foot-2 Martin on top of Zimmerman and that revealed how Martin had been expelled from school three times and was once found in possession of jewelry that was not his. Zimmerman, we have learned, is himself a minority — his mother is Hispanic — and has white as well as black family members. Black friends have spoken up for him and he has mentored a black child, although he also has some rough spots in his past.
What happened is a terrible tragedy, and it is understandable that many would react emotionally. But many have also seen journalistic unfairness in all of this. Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, recently told the Christian Science Monitor that the story “undermines public confidence in mainstream news media, which is already pretty low.” He noted PEW already says 77 percent of Americans think the press is generally unfair.
News is in a stage of dramatic transition. Newspapers and broadcast networks are in decline as new media — cable TV, blogs and more — are making themselves felt in ways both scary and encouraging. No one knows where it will end. This much we can bet on: If mature media forsake reasonable standards, it will end badly.
The tipping point cometh.