Good interviews generally stem from simple, short questions, like the one that CNN’s Chris Cuomo put to George Zimmerman in an interview that’s now making the rounds: “Do you regret that you killed Trayvon Martin?”
Zimmerman’s first response was legal: “Unfortunately the Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation, so those are the types of questions that because of the investigation, I have to tread lightly and I can’t answer them.”
So Cuomo tried various variations on the theme, a cat-and-mouse game that produced this memorable exchange:
Cuomo: But safe to say, if you could change how that night came out, you would both be alive today?
Zimmerman: I think that’s just a different way of rephrasing it.
Cuomo: If you could go back and do it again, you had said, “I would have stayed home that night.”
Zimmerman: I would stay home.
Cuomo: So that both of you would still be alive today.
Zimmerman: That’s a presumption I can’t make, I don’t know what would have happened. I could have gotten in a car accident when I left, you know?
The interview also clarified how Zimmerman feels about the government’s pursuit of him. “A scapegoat,” he said. When asked why the government would be scapegoating him, he replied, “I don’t like others speaking for me, so I try to give other people the benefit and not speak for them. I don’t know what they’re thinking or why they’re thinking it, all I know is that is that they’re doing it. I don’t know what agenda they have.”
For seeking an interview with one of the country’s biggest newsmakers of the past two years, CNN taken some licks. Twitter, doing what it does best, fashioned the hashtag #canceltheinterview and fired away:
— Alexis Green (@MissLexyG) February 17, 2014
It’s sad when you realize that you’re getting old because you can remember when CNN was actually about news. #CancelTheInterview
— SwampGas (@SwampGas) February 15, 2014
— Suzan Eraslan (@SuzanEraslan) February 17, 2014
There’s also a #canceltheinterview petition on Change.org, arguing that “George Zimmerman is not a celebrity. He is not newsworthy. He deserves no media attention.”
Though the protest didn’t stop CNN from running the interview, it appears to have prompted Cuomo and fellow CNNers to discuss the matter on this morning’s “New Day” program. “What matters more is not what he thinks about the situation. What matters are these bigger issues and why is he relevant. So why do you talk to him? Why do you make him relevant? You actually ask him these questions not to make him relevant, just to do just the opposite,” said Cuomo in a chat with CNN’s Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira. “And I believe George Zimmerman is an important example of what happens when you have too low of a legal standard for self-defense,” Cuomo went on. “You get somebody who is relatively unsophisticated, who misjudges a situation and winds up getting bailed out of by law that can let you get away with murder. That’s the problem with the law.”
That’s about right. In the same session that he professed his intention to become an attorney, Zimmerman faced a question from Cuomo about the complexities of self-defense law. Zimmerman: “I am not well-versed enough to tell you. I feel that until I study the Constitution and probably 10 years worth of legal findings, I wouldn’t be able to draw a solidified conclusion and I don’t want to do what others have done to me and speak without examining information, facts.” He added that he supports Second Amendment rights.
Indeed, the omissions are what make this interview: The empathy that Zimmerman doesn’t express, the grasp of Stand Your Ground laws that Zimmerman doesn’t possess, the evidence of scapegoating that he doesn’t provide. It’s all an important update on Zimmerman.
And yes, updates on Zimmerman are newsworthy. After the neighborhood watchman killed 17-year-old Martin on a rainy evening in February 2012, the news media were slow to catch on to the story. But once they did, they never let go, and for good reason. The killing brought to the fore questions of race, racial stereotyping, self-defense, civil rights, the criminal justice system and a great deal more. Zimmerman’s acquittal in July 2013 on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges disappointed people who felt that Martin had been targeted because of his race. “We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP. “We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”
Backlashers are correct to worry that Zimmerman is being hyped. This interview, however, doesn’t hype him; it probes him. Via the most unfortunate of circumstances, Zimmerman has become an American public figure, to the point that his receipt of a speeding ticket and his domestic turmoil are legitimate news stories. We’re way past the point where pretending George Zimmerman doesn’t exist is an option.