July 16, 2013
George Zimmerman
George Zimmerman (R) talks to defense counsel Don West during his trial. (Joe Burbank / Pool / EPA)

The rap against NBC News is that it framed George Zimmerman as a hardened racial profiler. In its coverage of the case just weeks after the Feb. 26, 2012, killing of Trayvon Martin, NBC ran an abridgment of the audiotape in which Zimmerman alerts a police dispatcher to a suspicious entrant in his community, as first reported by NewsBusters. The full transcript reads like this:

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.

NBC News’s cutdown yielded the impression that Zimmerman himself injected race into the conversation.

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

Such mis-editing prompted Zimmerman to sue NBC Universal Media for defamation back in December. The complaint’s money line: “NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, and so to set about the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain.”

In a February filing in the case, NBC successfully petitioned the Seminole County court to stay the proceedings in the case. In arguing for the stay, NBC expressed its expectations about the sort of testimony that would headline the just-concluded criminal case against Zimmerman. Here’s the key paragraph:

As the State’s Affidavit of Probable Cause confirms, it is highly likely that the Special Prosecutor intends to present evidence to the jury tending to show that Zimmerman acted with a racial animus in killing Martin. Indeed, the Affidavit asserts that Martin “was profiled by Zimmerman” and “was unarmed and was not committing a crime”…see also id. Ex. 3 (investigative report regarding previous calls by Zimmerman to police that “reported suspicious persons, all young Black males”). In short, there is every reason to believe that the State will attempt to obtain a conviction relying in significant part on the notion that Zimmerman acted with a malice motivated by race.

How mistaken.

The NBC filing also includes this almost-hopeful sentence: “[T]he evidence presented at Zimmerman’s criminal trial regarding racial animus will be at issue in this civil case as well.”

As explained in this extensive op-ed by NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom, the prosecution in the Zimmerman case punted on race.

It cannot reasonably be disputed that the incident that left Mr. Martin dead began with ugly racial profiling. But the prosecution seemed afraid to say so at any point in the trial. Instead, the state appeared to want to tread lightly on the jurors’ presumed delicate sensibilities on the dicey subject of race and, leaving the race question aside, simply pointed out that Mr. Zimmerman must have made “assumptions.” The state’s refusal to take an aggressive, clear position on Mr. Zimmerman’s racial profiling was, like many of its strategic decisions, a clear fumble.

So: Not only did the criminal trail fail to convict Zimmerman, it provided little fodder for lawyers representing NBC, who would have appreciated some evidence, on-the-record allegations or testimony that this neighborhood watch guy was a racial profiler. That, after all, is what the NBC News tape editing suggested.

Consider what Juror B-37 in the Zimmerman trial told CNN’s Anderson Cooper:

COOPER: So you don’t believe race played a role in this case?
JUROR B-37: I don’t think it did. I think if there was another person, Spanish, white, Asian, if they came in the same situation where Trayvon was, I think George would have reacted the exact same way.
COOPER: Was that a common belief on the jury that race was not — that race did not play a role in this?
JUROR B-37: I think all of us thought that race did not play a role.
COOPER: It didn’t come up, the question of, did George Zimmerman profile Trayvon Martin because he was African-American?
JUROR B-37: No, I think he just profiled him because he was the neighborhood watch, and he profiled anyone that came in acting strange. I think it was just circumstances happened that he saw Trayvon at the exact time that he thought he was suspicious.

All of that is bad news for NBC News.

James Beasley, Zimmerman’s lawyer in the defamation case, says the trial furnished “no evidence” of racial animus in Zimmerman. “George isn’t a racist,” says Beasley. On the topic of NBC News’s motivations in covering the encounter, Beasley insists the company was looking to “persuade the feds that he was acting with racial animus,” part of an effort to promote federal hate-crime charges against Zimmerman. As evidence, he cites an NBC News report from March 20, 2012, which stated that Zimmerman had used a “racial epithet” to describe Martin in his call to the police. “I don’t know why else they would have said that when it’s not true,” says Beasley.

Beasley says he hasn’t spoken to Zimmerman since the trial concluded. “He’s going dark and he’s smart to do so,” says Beasley.

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