In absence of facts, Trayvon Martin case becomes a war of images and reputations online
Here is where the media circus takes a decidedly ugly turn.
Even as protests spread across the country and celebrities from Sinbad to M.C. Hammer weigh in on the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, supporters of shooter George Zimmerman -- including some conservative websites -- are weighing in with attempts to turn Martin's image from innocent kid to dangerous thug.
The website the Daily Caller Monday featured tweets from the dead 17-year-old's now-closed account, topped with a huge photo of the teen showing off his gold teeth (a spokeswoman for the website says they got the photo from his Twitter account and are sure it is Martin).
According to the website, he tweeted under the name NO_LIMIT_NIGGA, passing along messages joking about school and friends with all the profanity and sex you would expect from a teen boy.
"Our readers, and most Americans, are keenly interested in the personalities and character of the two men involved in the altercation in Sanford, Fla.," said Daily Caller executive editor David Martoko, author of the story on Martin's tweets, in an quote emailed to me. "This information, which was in the public domain for months before the Twitter account was disabled, fills in some of that information. We chose that photo of Trayvon Martin because it was the picture he chose to represent himself on Twitter -- and also because, unlike the years-old photos of Martin that are accompanying most media reports, it represented what he looked like nearer to the end of his life."
The site also features a story on how Communist Party members "infiltrate" the protests in Sanford dedicated to Martin and a piece on a former NAACP chapter leader in Garland, Texas accusing activists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of "exploiting" the killing.
Another website, Wagist, complained that the widely-circulated photo of Zimmerman was a mug shot from a 2005 arrest, while photos released by the family of Martin seem to be years old, showing younger, less threatening youth. So the site posted pictures from a Twitpic account featuring what it says are Martin's multiple tattoos, eventually concluding he "may have been a small time drug dealer."
Conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg sent a tweet asking a question I had seen other conservatives ask online: "NYT calls Zimmerman 'White Hispanic.' Why add white?"
My explanation: because Hispanics can be white, black or brown, and journalists have been trying to communicate why people initially assumed Zimmerman was white, including the Sanford police. (of course, Goldberg tweeted a different explanation: "because it fits the media storyline: WHITE vigilante kills unarmed black teen.")
And conservative pundit Michelle Malkin's new site Twitchy earns the Geraldo Rivera award for media overreaching after publishing a photo it originally labelled as an image of Martin, showing a shirtless black teen with his pants hanging low, underwear showing, flipping off the camera. Of course, they had to apologize after learning it was a photo of the wrong Trayvon Martin. (and a police officer in New Orlenas just got suspended for posting a message to a website saying "act like thug, die like one."
In a media world where everything is political, Martin's killing has become a tug-of-war between those who see his case as an example of the dangers of racial profiling and those who contend liberal activists have hijacked the process for their own ends. And one of the primary battlegrounds is located where news of Martin's death first circulated: online and in social media.
And you should pay attention to what I write because my good friend, Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly, says I'm an "active civil rights person" so my "point of view carries some weight in this case."
Wonder what that phrase -- active civil rights person -- even means? Or why Bill never listens to me when I disagree with him on racial issues?
On Monday, the Orlando Sentinel published a story featuring leaked information from the Sanford police department detailing Zimmerman's allegations that Martin started a fight which ended when the volunteer neighborhood watchman shot the teen in self-defense. Zimmerman alleged the teen tried to take his gun before the fatal shot.
The story also revealed that Martin had been in Sanford because he was suspended from school in Miami after officials discovered an empty baggie in his possession with marijuana residue.
Some TV outlets seemed to treat the news of Zimmerman's story as a momentous revelation. But reporters who have been covering the story from the beginning knew that Zimmerman alleged the teen attacked him; Fox affiliates in Orlando and Tampa had already aired footage of an unnamed witness who claimed he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman, fighting him before the shot rang out.
But the Miami Herald published a story Monday detailing multiple suspensions for Martin in school, noting in one incident, he was spotted by a school officer marking up a door with graffiti. When they searched his bookbag they found women's jewelry and a screwdriver the officer described as a "burglary tool."
During a press conference Monday, Sharpton told cameras that the family and their attorneys told him about all the issues in Martin's life which might come up as they pressed for Zimmerman's arrest. "When we first got involved with this case … I had a very candid and open conversation with the attorneys and then with the parents," he said. "I was told of all of the particular issues that they may try to raise. We saw them as irrelevant then; we see them as irrelevant now."
But that disclosure also raised uncomfortable questions about the activist, who also hosts a 6 p.m. show on MSNBC PoliticsNation. If Sharpton knows details about Martin's life he isn't sharing with MSNBC -- a spokesman for the channel says the activist/anchor's producer notified NBC News about the youth's last suspension about 40 minutes before the press conference Monday -- does that make him less effective as a host covering an exploding news story?
All of this seems to be a massive reaction to the fact that there are no witnesses publicly known who have seen the entire interaction between Zimmerman and Martin. So the ultimate fate of this case may boil down to the word of the only person who survived the encounter: the shooter, Zimmerman.
When Martin's death first blossomed into a nationwide story, supporters wondered how the news of his killing would have been treated if the teen was a less sympathetic figure.
Now we may have an answer, as the same social media tools which spread word about his death are now turned to try and present a rougher image of his life.
And we are all left with an uncomfortable question: Even if Martin dabbled in drugs, carried himself like a gangsta and wore tattoos, did Zimmerman have the legal right to kill him that night?