Lawyers for George Zimmerman filed suit today against NBC Universal Media over a well-publicized editing error that portrayed their client in racist terms in his pursuit of Trayvon Martin on a drizzly evening in February.
"NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, and so to set about the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain," states the civil complaint in its opening salvo against NBC.
(Also at The Washington Post: Can Zimmerman prevail against NBC?)
NBC's editing of the 911 audiotape in the Martin case became a public fixation after the media-monitoring Web site NewsBusters.org noted editing oddities on a "Today" show broadcast March 27. Here's how NBC News portrayed the audiotape:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black.
The full tape went like this:
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 black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
Zimmerman thus didn't volunteer a racial profile of Martin; he was asked to provide it, a point that the lawsuit makes in colorful fashion: "NBC created this false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman's own words, splicing together disparate parts of the recording to create illusions of statements that Zimmerman never actually made."
The suit against NBC alleges four other instances in which NBC-produced shows aired false and defamatory versions of the same events. Zimmerman faces a second-degree murder charge in the case.
The botched edits, charges the suit, were far from innocent mistakes: "Defendants pounced on the Zimmerman/Martin matter because they knew this tragedy could be, with proper sensationalizing and manipulation, a racial powderkeg that would result in months, if not years, of topics for their failing news programs, particularly the plummeting ratings for their ailing "Today Show" as well as for the individual defendants to "make their mark" for reporting a [manipulated] story such as this." Individual defendants are Lilia Luciano and Jeff Burnside, NBC employees involved in early cases of Zimmerman mis-editing.
Following a public uproar over the tape-doctoring, NBC News issued a statement on the matter saying this: "During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret. We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers."
Such contrition didn't impress the Zimmerman camp. "Only after the defendants' malicious acts were uncovered and exposed by other media outlets did defendant NBC ‘apologize' and terminate some of those in its employ responsible for the yellow journalism identified in this Complaint." Zimmerman himself never received an apology from the defendants, according to the suit.
The suit doesn't specify a dollar amount of damages that Zimmerman is seeking. "That's showmanship," says James Beasley, the Philadelphia-based lawyer representing Zimmerman in the suit.
Beasley declined to comment on whether he'd already had any discussions with NBC. "I don't want to talk about that. I can't talk about that. But let's just say I don't think it's going to get settled."
On that question, at least, Beasley and NBC appear to agree. When asked about the complaint, NBC Universal issued this statement: "We strongly disagree with the accusations made in the complaint. There was no intent to portray Mr. Zimmerman unfairly. We intend to vigorously defend our position in court."
Read more: Can Zimmerman prevail against NBC?