NBC disclosed today that it will be launching an internal investigation into a segment about the Trayvon Martin case that appeared on the Today show, in which a call between George Zimmerman and a 911 dispatcher prior to Martin's death was edited in such a way that it portrays Zimmerman as a racial profiler. The editorial decision under review involves the removal of the dispatcher's inquiry about the race of the person Zimmerman was following — Martin. Absent that question, Zimmerman's comments get strung together as if he said, in sequence, "This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black."
The Washington Post provides the full transcript of that part of the call:
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.
Of course Zimmerman goes on to follow Martin against the advice of the dispatcher, but in this version of the call, it doesn't appear that he's awkwardly offering the information or in effect, profiling. Zimmerman still might have been, but the truncated call left much less doubt.
The Post's Erik Wemple writes that in a case where few facts are undisputed, it was particularly egregious to misrepresent one of them, the phone call. "To portray that exchange in a way that wrongs Zimmerman is high editorial malpractice well worthy of the investigation that NBC is now mounting."
Meanwhile New York Times media czar David Carr wrote a column today titled "A Shooting, And Instant Polarization," in which he similarly impugned some media coverage of this controversial case.
That the public is rendering its verdict immediately and firmly may be routine, but choosing sides takes on a deeper, more dangerous meaning when race is at the heart of the story. Race as an explosive issue is nothing new, but it’s been staggering to see it simmer and boil over in our hyperdivided media environment where nonstop coverage on the Web and cable television creates a rush to judgment every day.
Partisan politics and far-flung conflicts fit nicely into that world — who’s ahead, who’s behind, should we stay or go? — but racial conflict? Not so much.
That hasn’t stopped many in the media from displaying the same reflexive vigilantism that some are attributing to George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon. All over the Internet and on cable TV, posses are forming, positions are hardening and misinformation is flourishing. Instead of debating how we as a culture are going to proceed, an increasingly partisan system of news and social media has factionalized and curdled.
Carr and Wemple are not the only two to call out partisan media and media at large for mishandling coverage of the Martin case, or misrepresenting specific aspects of it. Nor are NBC or Business Insider (chastised by Carr for mishandling dubious photos) the only two to have erred in their coverage.
We'll end with an exchange from Something's Gotta Give, starring Jack Nicholson (Harry) and Diane Keaton (Erica):
Harry: I have never lied to you. I have always told you some version of the truth.
Erica Barry: The truth doesn't have versions, okay?