Zimmerman edit: An honest mistake? (Reuters)

George Zimmerman last week filed a defamation suit against NBC News/NBC Universal for portraying him as a committed racial profiler in news stories on the Trayvon Martin case. In a post on the matter, the Erik Wemple Blog termed NBC News’s sin an “editing error” and referenced the outlet’s “botched edits.”

Those edits shortened the famous 911 call that Zimmerman placed to authorities Feb. 26 as he began pursuing Martin in his Sanford, Fla., gated community. Here’s how NBC News portrayed the tape:

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

The actual recording went 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.

Nasty stuff. The omissions engineered by NBC News attribute to Zimmerman clearly racist sentiments, furnishing a strong platform from which to launch a civil complaint.

Readers of this blog attacked its earnest author, however, for reporting that the edits resulted from error. Here’s some Twitter traffic:

One close reader of the blog e-mailed me with these comments:

“Lawyers for George Zimmerman filed suit today against NBC Universal Media over a well-publicized editing error …”

Not an “error”. Please correct.

“The botched edits”

Not “botched”. Please correct.

Those who believe the bad NBC News edits were deliberate will find plenty of luscious reading in the Zimmerman complaint.

The document says repeatedly that the edits were designed to “create the illusion of statements that Zimmerman never actually made.” The wrongdoing, says the suit, included “multiple deletions, each intentionally removing almost one minute of intervening dialogue between Zimmerman and the dispatcher, so as to juxtapose unrelated content to make it appear that Zimmerman was a racist….”

More on that front:

The defendants knew when they created, broadcast, and rebroadcast the manipulated audio and the false statements about the recordings’ contents that the entire basis of their reporting was manifestly improper, a violation of journalistic ethics, and was certain to cause not just severe emotional distress to Zimmerman and damage to his reputation, but also threats to his life and calls for his criminal prosecution.

Other parts of the civil action, however, contemplate a less damning scenario for NBC News. In paragraph 82 of the complaint, for instance, lawyers for Zimmerman state, “Defendants had knowledge of, or acted in reckless disregard to, the falsity of the matters they publicized and the resultant defamatory implications in which Zimmerman was placed.” Other passages also hold out the possibility that the edits came about via reckless disregard.

That’s carefully stated language. Public figures in defamation cases must prove “actual malice” on behalf of the offending news organization, a test that requires proving that the outlet either knew the reporting was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth. That’s the standard that James Beasley, Zimmerman’s attorney, articulated today when asked about the error vs. intent question. In the same breath, Beasley referenced the official position of the president of NBC News. “[Steve] Capus says it’s a mistake, so we’ll see. It’s a hell of a lot of coincidences for a mistake.”

Yes, at least four of them. The suit alleges libelous tape manipulation in NBC broadcasts on March 19, March 20, March 22 and March 27. Though the mis-edits apply to the same portion of the Zimmerman 911 call, the suit charges that they differ in their particulars, using different omissions and elisions. In each case, the edits shaft Zimmerman.

So that’s where the basis for an intentional anti-Zimmerman vendetta resides: In the repetition, that is. How could so many edits result from simple happenstance? NBC Universal last week issued a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog rebuffing the notion of an anti-Zimmerman campaign: “There was no intent to portray Mr. Zimmerman unfairly,” said the statement, in part.