The fuse, now burning brightly, soon threatened to touch off an explosion.
Members of the New Black Panther Party, a fringe group, showed up in Sanford that weekend to protest Zimmerman’s release from police custody. By Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton was talking about the Martin case on his syndicated radio program and on his MSNBC show, setting off even more talk on cable.
On cable talk shows, “hosts on both sides of the political spectrum found something that fit their perspectives,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which had studied the media coverage.
The left seized on the police not charging Zimmerman and on the Martin family as symbols of civil rights, he said; the right emphasized alleged liberal media bias in reporting the story. According to PEJ’s data, MSNBC, which employs Sharpton, has discussed the Martin case more than CNN or Fox News.
A key twist in the story, said Julison, was the release on March 16 of tapes of Zimmerman’s 911 emergency calls. The tapes, which Sanford police had resisted releasing, gave news outlets fresh material to report, and added another emotional element to the story. One recording captured screams for help in the background. “It humanized the situation,” he said. “You hear people crying. You can’t help but be moved by it.”
By this time, the story had spread to social media, with such celebrities as Spike Lee, Russell Simmons and Mia Farrow tweeting their outrage, and LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates posing for photos in hoodies — the garment worn by Martin at the time of his death.
The Martin family, in New York for an appearance on “The Today Show,” also agreed to participate in a local rally dubbed “The Million Hoodie March,” which drew enormous media attention. President Obama finally seemed to certify the story’s national significance March 23 when he commented, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Julison, who worked on the story for no compensation, says he always thought his clients’ case had merit, but the outcome wasn’t guaranteed. “All of these things worked perfectly,” he said. “They came out in just the right sequence for us.”