December 7, 2012

Why no apology for this man? (Getty Images)

There are lots of damning allegations against NBC News in the “reckless defamation” lawsuit filed yesterday by lawyers for George Zimmerman. It charges NBC News with an effort to “create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain” in its coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

NBC Universal has already slapped back that contention. A statement issued yesterday to the Erik Wemple Blog states, in part, “There was no intent to portray Mr. Zimmerman unfairly.”

There’s at least one other claim in the suit, however, that won’t prompt a sharp denial from NBC:

To this day, the defendants have never apologized to Zimmerman for deliberately portraying him as a hostile racist who targeted Martin due to his race…”

That’s not to say that NBC News never expressed any contrition for the audio edits. Following an investigation into the matter, the outlet released this statement:

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.

So NBC News apologized to Zimmerman only to the extent that Zimmerman figures among the pool of NBC News “viewers.” At the time, this blog noted that a statement of regret issued directly to Zimmerman would have been a good idea:

[T]he statement is skimpy on the details on just how the mistake unfolded. Nor does it articulate an apology directly to George Zimmerman, the “viewer” who is most aggrieved by the screw-up. In light of all that’s happened, Zimmerman may be a tough person for a news network to apologize to, but that’s just the point: Apologies are hard.

The severity of NBC News’s misdeeds required far more apologizing than just a quick mention in a minimalist press release. NewsBusters.org, which broke the story, abhorred the failure to take the apology to another platform: NBC’s own air. And David Carr of the New York Times got NBC News President Steve Capus to concede that the network “probably” should have done just that.

The journalistic reasons for a direct-to-Zimmerman mea culpa are formidable. It would have acknowledged that Zimmerman was owed something special here; it would have acknowledged that the network’s journalism has real and deep impact; it would have earned the company its first bout of positive press since the mis-editing began; and it would have been the right and principled thing to do, no insignificant consideration for a journalism organ.

Now pile on some legal-slash-business reasons for saying sorry. Florida has a glorious retraction statute that rewards journalistic integrity. It could have saved the network some grief in the (very likely) scenario that Zimmerman would sue for defamation. The law appears customized for just the series of events claimed by NBC News in its official statements — that is, that the edits were the result of innocent mistakes. Under such a case, a “Full and fair correction, apology, or retraction,” to use the language of the Florida statute, limits a plaintiff like Zimmerman to recovery of only “actual damages,” meaning that he couldn’t soak NBC Universal for punitive damages and the like.

There’s one stipulation in the law, however, that NBC News hasn’t come close to fulfilling: The retraction or correction must be broadcast in a time slot “comparable” to when the false report was aired. Go ahead, try finding a lawyer who’ll argue that a press release meets this criterion

James Beasley, the Philadelphia-based lawyer who’s representing Zimmerman, says his office requested retraction from NBC News in late September/early October. “Nothing of substance ever came through,” says Beasley. “You give the defendants the opportunity to correct it, and the fact that they don’t goes toward the issue of malice.”

NBC Universal didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for this post.

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