Opinion: Media not the judge or jury in Trayvon Martin case

Published 11:56 am Monday, April 2, 2012

I do not know: if George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was murder, if Martin assaulted Zimmerman who then reacted in self-defense, if Zimmerman is a responsible civic-minded citizen sincerely protecting his neighborhood, or if Martin has been such a school problem he was bound to cause trouble in the neighborhood. At the moment of my writing (necessarily several days prior to publication), it looks very bad for the shooter. But, then, we are entirely dependent upon the news media—and herein is a tremendous problem. The media generally — especially television — are not reporting news from Florida but provoking racial outrage by scintillating entertainment to beat commercial competition.

I resent their confusing the public, and I fear they may well yet fatally compromise the attempt to find justice in this case. If this goes to trial, as it probably should, the media have already made it extremely difficult to find a jury pool of unbiased citizens. The media are also stirring up volatile racial strife.

If media personnel think they are reporting objectively by interviewing a variety of people, they betray themselves by their very word usage. They report that the shooter is “yet at large,” which term strongly suggests he is a fugitive from the law. He reasonably fears for his own life, which if taken in vengeance would be as terrible a crime as that with which such people charge him. They say the Stanford police chief “was forced to step down,” as if an authority fired him. At worst, he felt obliged by such circumstances and acted on the better part of wisdom.

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“He is still at large despite the thousands who are protesting.” Well, this is what we do in America. We do not jail people because thousands protest.

In their time of deep grief in losing a beloved son, reporters pushed a mike in his parents’ faces and asked: “If he were a white man, do you think for a minute this would have happened?” This is termed a leading question. They implanted in minds the answer they were determined to get from mouths.

One TV anchor asked, “Why would he follow a man he didn’t even know?” This is precisely why he followed him, i.e., he did not know him and suspected the youth might be there to do harm. Following people he doesn’t know was his job.

I have heard dozens of times that this watch captain has called the police 49 times. This, too, was his job. I did not hear, because facts would be inconvenient, as to how many of these calls were unnecessary or how many required police action.

The reason Zimmerman should be immediately arrested and placed in custody, the media are saying, is that this is a hate crime. But it is neither the ability nor authority of the media to make this judgment. It, too, is for a court to decide.

Barack Obama has once again compromised the office of president and confused the public by intruding into a matter outside his competence and authority. (The previous case, in Cambridge, was also taking the side of a man of Obama’s own color against a white man.) It would be problematic enough if he commented on a jury’s findings, but he projects from incomplete and faulty reports. The man is not guilty because the president thinks he is.

That we (rightly) grieve for the loss of this life is not grounds for conviction (in court or out) of murder.

The great fault I think I see with television is, partly, due to the unavoidable nature of the medium. But it becomes compounded by radio and print that swallow uncritically TV’s ephemeral remarks and just run with them trying to outdo television for a share of the market.

My concern, again is not the merits of the case, but the way the news media are generally handling the news. If many in the media sacrifice objectivity and disinterest to commercial gain, it is all the more important for us to watch, listen, and read with a corrective objectivity and unbiased concern.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears every Monday.