Lawyers for George Zimmerman filed suit today against NBC Universal Media over a well-publicized editing error that portrayed their client in racist terms in his pursuit of Trayvon Martin on a drizzly evening in February.
“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,” states the civil complaint in its opening salvo against NBC.
NBC’s editing of the 911 audiotape in the Martin case became a public fixation after the media-monitoring Web site NewsBusters.org noted editing oddities on a “Today” show broadcast March 27. Here’s how NBC News portrayed the audiotape:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
The full tape 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.
Zimmerman thus didn’t volunteer a racial profile of Martin; he was asked to provide it, a point that the lawsuit makes in colorful fashion: “NBC created this false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman’s own words, splicing together disparate parts of the recording to create illusions of statements that Zimmerman never actually made.”
Michael Moore perfected this art. Mainstream media took it and ran with it.
For the purposes of a libel case, then, Zimmerman should have little trouble proving that NBC News broadcast false and defamatory material about him. The stiff legal challenge for Zimmerman & Co. lies in another phase of the proceedings, and that is proving damages from NBC’s treatment.
Just why should that be so difficult? Because of media saturation. Think back to March: What news outlet — local, national, international — sat out the Trayvon Martin case? Cable news appeared to talk about nothing but. Newspapers had their reporters covering every step of the police investigation/quasi investigation, and their opinion writers opining on the case’s lessons for race and criminal justice in America. There was only one way to escape it all: a cabin.
James Beasley, Zimmerman’s attorney in the case, faces the steep legal challenge of proving that the misdeeds of NBC News alone made enough of an impression on the public to harm Zimmerman. In an interview this afternoon, Beasley invoked the media mushroom on the case as a data point in his client’s favor. “That’s exactly the point,” said Beasley when asked about the scrum. “This is out there and instead of [NBC] saying, ‘Let’s talk about what really happened,’ they’re taking something that’s running at one plus one and just started multiplying it.” In other words, a media force as large as NBC had an opportunity to calm the racial excesses of reportage on Zimmerman; it went in the other direction.
More from Beasley: “NBC just exponentially expanded, this has caused a lot of problems for George. He can’t go out on the street — he’ll get his arse kicked….No other journalistic entity came even close to how journalistically irresponsible and reckless NBC was.”