March 7, 2013

George Zimmerman (Getty Images)

NBC doesn’t want to deal with George Zimmerman’s libel suit. In a Feb. 20 filing in the case, NBC Universal Media LLC asks a Florida circuit court to stay the case until the conclusion of Zimmerman’s June trial for second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin.

The procedural part of the motion — that the libel case and the criminal case overlap and can’t proceed smoothly at the same time — is far less interesting than the substantive case that lawyers for NBC News advance in defense of the network.

To recap Zimmerman’s case against NBC News: On the night that he shot Martin, Zimmerman called 911 and narrated his pursuit of the teenager in his gated community in Sanford, Fla. A March 27 edition of the “Today” show abridged the 911 tape, as follows:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

Here’s what that abridgment was abridging:

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.

There’s a black-and-white difference between those two treatments. In the first, Zimmerman is an out-and-out racial profiler. In the second, he’s just a guy answering reasonable questions from an emergency dispatcher.

Among the important themes of NBC’s recent motion is the way other news outlets portrayed Zimmerman and the larger issues in the case. For example, it notes that a Reuters story played up the racial dimension of thing, quoting the Martin family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, as saying that race was the “600-pound elephant in the room.” It cites an early CBS piece noting that the case has “serious racial overtones.” It cites a Huffington Post account saying that “The martin family’s attorneys and black community leaders have said the teenager was profiled and targeted because he was young and black.” It cites a Christian Science Monitor account saying that “[f]or many tuning in across the nation, the shooting late last month in Florida of an unarmed black teenager by a suspicious neighborhood watch captain looks like a racially motivated murder.”

Further: Other news organizations, it notes, were forced to shorten their treatments of the 911 call, because it stretches for seven pages in transcript form. Accordingly, says the complaint:

[N]ewscasts across the country played relevant excerpts from the recording and newspapers and other publications similarly quoted only portions of it. On March 19, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that “[t]he slaying has dominated social media and national news outlets in the wake of Friday’s release of 911 tapes in the Feb. 26 shooting. On the tapes is Zimmerman’s call to report Martin. ‘He’s got his hand in his waistband and he’s a black male,’ Zimmerman can be heard telling the dispatcher, saying he’s following Martin.”… Similarly, Fox News reported a summary of the call as follows: “On the 911 call, Zimmerman is heard describing Trayvon martin as a black man who appears to be, quote, up to no good and reaching in his pocket.” PBS’s “McLaughlin Group,” in a program taped March 23 and broadcast the weekend of March 23-24, summarized the Call this way:
MCLAUGHLIN: Here’s Zimmerman on the phone reporting to a 911 operator the presence of a suspicious person.
(Begin audiotaped segment)
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: He’s got his hand in his waistband and he’s a black male.
911 OPERATOR: Are you following him?
MR. ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.
911 OPERATOR: OK, we don’t need you to do that (End audiotaped segment)

To abridge, NBC News is saying it has some company. The Erik Wemple Blog would be interested to see whether a jury of Zimmerman’s peers would be blown away by the “McLaughlin Group” transcript.

NBC also expresses a bit of legal-brief umbrage over Zimmerman’s media offensive, the timing of which the network finds curious:

Zimmerman’s commencement of this defamation action coincides with his efforts both to raise additional funds for his criminal defense and to engender public sympathy for his cause. Indeed, promptly upon filing his Complaint in this case, Zimmerman established a fourth website devoted to developments in this defamation case.

For the record, that’s a modern media organization quibbling with someone else using modern media.

The defendants rest on firmer ground in arguing that the outcome of the criminal case could well obviate the civil one: “[I]f Zimmerman is convicted, that fact alone will constitute substantial evidence that the destruction of his reputation is the result of his own criminal conduct, and not of the broadcasts at issue which, like countless other news resports disseminated by media entities throughout the country, reported on the underlying events.”

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