July 13, 2013

Just last week, newly christened Fox News media-analyst Howard Kurtz broke down the evolution of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case with colleague Bret Baier. The topic was the same one that everyone had been chewing on, namely the great deal of coverage accorded to the trial.

Here’s part of the discussion:

BAIER: Do you think this trial would have gotten as much coverage from the beginning had a lot of the activists not really got into the game in the beginning?

KURTZ: Bret, I don’t think even it ever would have become a national story. It never would have been on the radar. It was the issue of race and the activists descending on Sanford, Florida that catapulted this. And really, you know, there seems to be this hunger in cable news land for the — what I call a soap opera spectacle. Before this, there was the Jody Arias trial. Before that, it was the Amanda Knox trial.

Variations on this strain of thought have circulated in the media in advanced of the widely expected not-guilty verdict announced on Saturday night. On “Fox & Friends” this week, Geraldo Rivera, for instance, held the Rev. Al Sharpton of MSNBC responsible for serving as a “catalyst” for the prosecution of George Zimmerman. On the Fox News show “The Five,” co-host Greg Gutfeld declared, “the media right now is on trial for those first three to four months after this crime occurred, of all of the race-based content they ran with, without facts, but emotion, because it created ratings.”

Trayvon Martin
(Julie Fletcher / The Associated Press)

Get used to this line of reasoning, for it’s likely to spill into the public via self-satisfied, I-told-you-so professions in newspapers and TV monologues in the coming weeks. Hell, it may not subside till Labor Day.

Don’t believe a word of it, however.

Indeed the media committed atrocities in covering the encounter between Zimmerman and Martin. Most notably, NBC News mal-edited a police audiotape that portrayed Zimmerman as an out-and-out racial profiler.

Yet to posit that the media and activists orchestrated a national issue gives too little credit to the nation. Simply put, people across the country were horrified that a 17-year-old kid walking through a neighborhood with candy and a soft drink could have ended up shot to death. They didn’t need the media to tell them to get out and demand Zimmerman’s arrest, or simply to express solidarity with the victim.

Toggle back to that tumultuous period after the killing and before Zimmerman’s arrest. On March 31, 2012, the News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware) carried a story documenting how around 300 students at William Penn High School “wore hoodies in a silent demonstration.” More:

“We just want to show that a little old school in a small state can show support for something in a bigger place,” said Warren Veney, a William Penn senior who, with Assistant Principal Kevin White, helped organize the demonstration. “It’s about every American coming together and showing true American spirit. That’s what our goal is.”

William Penn Principal Jeffrey Menzer said he agreed to lift the school’s policy banning headwear in the building to allow the demonstration, one of countless rallies and protests across the nation calling for justice in the case. Menzer praised his students for planning a peaceful, silent protest and for engaging in a civic and social issue of national magnitude.

In looking back at such “countless rallies and protests,” Americans have a choice:

1) They can believe that all these people calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman were duped by the media and agenda-driven activists. That they had no clue what was actually going on, and that their expressions of protest and concern amounted to nothing; or

2) They can believe that the protesters had legitimate gripes arising from the broad outlines of the case.

Choosing Door No. 1 amounts to a worldview covered by blinders. Folks everywhere — of all races and backgrounds — saw something outrageous in what happened on Feb. 26, 2012. They recognized it. And they reacted in a way that no one from CNN, no one from Fox News, no one from ABC News could make them react. The media is powerful, but it can’t persuade people to sacrifice their free time to protest something they don’t believe in.

Debate over the particulars of the Zimmerman case can now wind down — a jury has rendered its verdict. Yet discussion of what made the case a national story — i.e., treatment of black folks minding their own business — shouldn’t wind down. That’s a real issue, a real story; it even merits wall-to-wall trial coverage. And dismissing it as a media-authored construct is a dangerous evasion.

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