December 6, 2012

George Zimmerman (AFP/Getty Images)

The just-filed suit by George Zimmerman against NBC Universal and three employees furnishes some flaming legal invective. It claims that NBC News, via its repeated mis-editing of a 911 audiotape, portrayed Zimmerman as a “racist and predatory villain.” The motivation behind such a portrayal, charges the suit, was to gin up “topics” for the network’s “failing news programs.”

Tough-sounding stuff.

The goods to back up the suit’s central allegations are all out there on video feeds across the Internet. NBC News editing of that 911 audiotape gave viewers the impression that Zimmerman had volunteered that Trayvon Martin was black, when in fact the 911 dispatcher asked him about the young man’s racial appearance.

For the purposes of a libel case, then, Zimmerman should have little trouble proving that NBC News broadcast false and defamatory material about him. The stiff legal challenge for Zimmerman & Co. lies in another phase of the proceedings, and that is proving damages from NBC’s treatment.

Just why should that be so difficult? Because of media saturation. Think back to March: What news outlet — local, national, international — sat out the Trayvon Martin case? Cable news appeared to talk about nothing but. Newspapers had their reporters covering every step of the police investigation/quasi investigation, and their opinion writers opining on the case’s lessons for race and criminal justice in America. There was only one way to escape it all: a cabin.

James Beasley, Zimmerman’s attorney in the case, faces the steep legal challenge of proving that the misdeeds of NBC News alone made enough of an impression on the public to harm Zimmerman. In an interview this afternoon, Beasley invoked the media mushroom on the case as a data point in his client’s favor. “That’s exactly the point,” said Beasley when asked about the scrum. “This is out there and instead of [NBC] saying, ‘Let’s talk about what really happened,’ they’re taking something that’s running at one plus one and just started multiplying it.” In other words, a media force as large as NBC had an opportunity to calm the racial excesses of reportage on Zimmerman; it went in the other direction.

More from Beasley: “NBC just exponentially expanded, this has caused a lot of problems for George. He can’t go out on the street — he’ll get his ass kicked….No other journalistic entity came even close to how journalistically irresponsible and reckless NBC was.”

Now for an unbiased take, from Prof. Clay Calvert of the University of Florida:

“Damages would be tough for Zimmerman to prove given all of the bad publicity that has surrounded him. He would only get what courts call special damages if he can prove that this particular broadcast on NBC caused him to lose a job or sustain some other direct monetary loss. On the other hand, compensatory damages for reputation harm — what it means when his friends don’t hang out with him, for example, or the public generally shuns and avoids him or ridicules him — are possible, but the jury would have to sort that only if Zimmerman wins his case.” (Disclosure: Calvert issued that opinion earlier this fall, when rumors of a suit surfaced.)

More to come on this case.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.