Easter weekend saw some important progress in NBC’s response to the scandal over the George Zimmerman tape. NBC News President Steve Capus spoke with Reuters about the incident, producing or confirming the following news points:
*A veteran producer was fired over the incident;
*Other disciplinary actions were taken against “several people”;
*The mistake owed to classic television constraints.
As part of the investigation, the producer who edited the call was questioned extensively about motivation, and it was determined that the person had cut the video clip down to meet a maximum time requirement for the length of the segment — a common pressure in morning television — and inadvertently edited the call in a way that proved misleading.
At last! Some beef about what went wrong here. For the purposes of memory refreshment, here’s the editing that caused this problem to begin with. On the March 27 edition of the “Today” show, viewers were treated to this statement by George Zimmerman during his call to an emergency dispatcher:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
This is how the conversation actually unfolded:
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.
Effort would be required to contrive a more injurious abridgement of the tape, at least as far as Zimmerman’s interests are concerned. The prima facie outrageousness of the editing, in fact, convinced a vocal group that NBC had acted deliberately — that it was out to tar Zimmerman. Here are some tweets from folks who are dubious of NBC’s explanation:
As I’ve said before, I am not pitching a tent in the “deliberate” camp. I’ve seen too many errors over the years, and I know how simple carelessness can come off as a conspiracy. Just the same, I’d feel a lot better about NBC News if it had initially disclosed all the relevant facts upfront, including:
*Exactly when it first became aware of the mistake;
*When it started its investigation and pursuant to what;
*How quickly the segment in question progressed from start to finish;
*Why it apparently felt a direct apology to Zimmerman was unnecessary.
Beyond those nitty-gritties, however, there’s a bigger theme at work in the NBC-Zimmerman story: The ins and outs of a news outlet’s editorial procedures aren’t like nuclear warhead codes. News executives — especially in an instance like this — may disclose such details without endangering anyone’s life or the stability of the republic. NBC’s statement on the situation last Tuesday was a classic of the CIA approach to news transparency:
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.
One pundit guesses that the reason that NBC didn’t go into more detail is because the Zimmerman camp threatened legal action. If so, that’s no excuse. A better guess is that NBC is simply engaging in the behavior of a large company — that is, playing the situation cautiously and providing as little information as feasible. And projecting just enough defensiveness to fuel the theories of those who believe the worst about its actions.