The sliming of George Zimmerman

If it had happened to anybody but George Zimmerman, more people might have cared. But when your own lawyer calls you America’s most hated man you can’t expect a groundswell of sympathy, even when an immensely powerful broadcaster slimes you.

Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch zealot in Florida who picked a fight the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, with 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whom he mistook for a prowler. Martin rose to the bait, they fought; Zimmerman shot him dead and claimed self-defense.

Initially police in Sanford, Fla., did nothing, reasoning that the state’s “stand your ground” law authorized Zimmerman to shoot rather than back off the confrontation he’d provoked. After a public furor—the town has a legacy of racism, Martin was African-American and Zimmerman isn’t—he was charged with second-degree murder, only to be acquitted at trial.

I thought the acquittal was preposterous. But my intention here isn’t to rehash the unavenged wrong Zimmerman did. It’s to examine the lesser known wrong that was then done to him—and how it exemplifies the license that U.S. courts have given news media to mangle facts and defame powerless individuals.

On five occasions, NBC and its Miami station WTVJ broadcast excerpts from a recording of Zimmerman’s call to a 911 dispatcher moments before the shooting. NBC’s recounting had several iterations but basically went:

Zimmerman’s voice, TODAY Show, March 20: “This guy [Trayvon Martin] looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.”

And on TODAY, March 27, Zimmerman: “He looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”

Obviously this guy’s got a thing about race, right? Except here’s how the 911 transcript really went:

Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”

Dispatcher: “OK, and this guy is he white, black or Hispanic?”

Zimmerman: “He looks black.”

The difference is huge. Instead of Zimmerman zeroing in on Martin’s race, the subject arose only in reply to the dispatcher’s question.

NBC also reported “speculation” that Zimmerman used a “racial epithet,” and replayed part of the tape with the suspect words bleeped out. FBI acoustics experts later declared it impossible to say what the words were. So why censor words that are unintelligible? NBC’s bleeps left the clear impression that they were nasty and racist.

NBC’s liberties were quickly detected and criticized, and by early April the network acknowledged “an error made in the production process that we deeply regret,” and fired two producers. NBC apologized to viewers, not to Zimmerman.

Zimmerman sued for libel, alleging NBC “created a false recording, by taking the plaintiff’s words out of context and splicing them together in a way which altered their meaning and created the false implication that the plaintiff had targeted and shot Martin because he ‘looks black.’”

Sounds right to me: Deliberate falsity, defamatory intent. What is libel if not that?

Last month a Florida judge—the same one who handled his murder trial (some clean slate Zimmerman got for his lawsuit)—threw his case out.

Her reasoning went back to the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Times v. Sullivan, now celebrating its 50th birthday, which decreed public figures deserve a dramatically weaker level of protection from defamation than ordinary people do.

The logic: The media need the right to get it wrong when reporting on public affairs; otherwise they wouldn’t conduct the energetic journalism the system needs. Besides, public figures invite—and benefit from—coverage, and can claim the public podium to redress wrongs done to them by overaggressive media.

So while ordinary people can sue if they’re hurt by simple negligence, public figures can recover for libel only if the falsity is so egregious that the media either did it on purpose or had reason to doubt its veracity and didn’t.

It’s hard to see why NBC’s cutting-room calisthenics didn’t constitute deliberate falsification, but the judge ruled they fell within the bounds of editorial compression permitted in reporting on public figures.

But how is it that Zimmerman, this 28-year-old, part-time insurance underwriter and criminology student, was a “public figure?”

Well, NBC argued, he had helped organize a Neighborhood Watch Program. Then, of course, he shot Trayvon Martin, which became a public controversy. The irony here is that the media point to their own coverage—which made Zimmerman a public figure—to avoid answering for their misconduct.

But the most ironic claim the judge bought into concerns Zimmerman as a public voice in Sanford race relations. In December 2010 the son of a white police lieutenant had been videotaped beating a homeless black man—and Zimmerman was incensed. He passed out flyers and spoke at a public meeting, denouncing local authorities for failing to nail the perpetrator.

So Zimmerman couldn’t now claim he’d been falsely defamed as a racist, in part because as a public figure he had to submit to greater media imbecility. But his spurious status as a public figure rested in no small way on having stood up against police racism. Oh well.

Too bad a great news outfit like NBC can’t just admit it wronged this guy and make amends, instead of crouching behind a cornerstone principle of press freedom as if it was custom-made to protect ineptitude and malice.

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