Trayvon Martin update: The difference between black and white on this issue is personal
After a month and a half watching all the reporting, commentaries and media created in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, I think that notion may be the biggest divide separating many people of color from white people when it comes to opinion on this case.
The chasm is real: A poll released Thursday by Reuters news agency and Ipsos marketing firm found 91 percent of African-Americans surveyed felt Martin was unjustly killed when shot by volunteer neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
Just 35 percent of white respondents felt the same. (The Washington Post also published an interesting column wondering if the GOP is turning itself into the "white man's party.")
Recently, I've spent time for a book project exploring the differences between the way black people and white people see race issues. One study said many black people see reaching racial equality as a security issue, as important as taking care of your family or ensuring your own personal safety.
For many white people, such equality is a less urgent matter; a nurturing issue, like doing a good deed or righting a moral wrong.
It's a nice idea. But it's not personal.
I'm convinced that's what President Obama meant when he said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Even a black politician who spent his career avoiding typically confrontational race discussions had to admit it. This time, it felt personal.
We fear the very institutions we should trust to protect us — the neighborhood watchman, police investigators and criminal prosecutors — may react differently if you look like we do.
That's also why it feels so odd to see the media excess at hand.
I know from experience that this is what happens when outlets scramble to cover a story where there is almost no new information. But it still feels, sometimes, as if typically reputable media outlets have lost their minds.
A local radio station on Friday featured a psychic talking on the case. I'm assuming they couldn't find someone capable of traveling back in time to see what happened.
Local TV stations last week offered stories on a local member of the New Black Panther Party who used racial slurs against white people on a podcast.
The NBPP already has been named an anti-white hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Didn't we professional journalists learn, many years ago, that giving media exposure to small, racist groups only helps them grow?
And the absurdities didn't stop there. CNN aired a story on March 21 using audio analysis of Zimmerman's static-filled 911 call to police, suggesting that he used a racial slur, "coons." ("It certainly sounds like that word, to me," said reporter Gary Tuchman then. "Though you can't be sure.")
If you can't be sure, why air the "analysis" at all?
Turns out, on April 4, CNN aired another story quoting a different audio expert saying Zimmerman may have used the word "cold," instead.
ABC News also pulled an about-face on whether video of Zimmerman at the Sanford police department debunked or backed up his claims that Martin assaulted him before the fatal gunshot.
On March 28, looking at blurry video, their story noted "video shows no blood or bruises." By April 2, ABC News aired a more detailed version showing a possible injury on the top of Zimmerman's head.
And the less said about NBC's disastrous editing of Zimmerman's 911 call — making it seem as if he volunteered a description of Martin's race, when he was answering a question from the dispatcher — the better.
Some media outlets also have used their coverage to get close to the families involved.
MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton led a press conference for Martin's family Wednesday just before interviewing them on air. The conservative-friendly Daily Caller website, which published messages and pictures from the dead teen's social media accounts that made him look disrespectful and "gangsta," also has obtained exclusive access to letters from the Zimmerman family criticizing the government.
Little, however, compares to the actions of columnist John Derbyshire, fired by National Review magazine after he wrote a piece for a different online outlet that read like a genteel, intellectualized justification for racism.
Derbyshire wrote his column as a version of "the talk" some pundits of color admitted they have with their children about staying safe in a world where there is still institutional racism.
But his talk warned his children to "avoid all concentrations of blacks not known to you personally" and to avoid helping black people as a Good Samaritan. His justification involved fears of anti-white violence and the assumption that "the black stranger will be less intelligent than the white."
Later, after the National Review severed all ties with him, Derbyshire told the Daily Caller his column was "just common sense."
For me, that was seriously personal.
As I told one radio program director last week, when it comes to covering the Martin case, you're either advancing understanding or you're part of the circus.
In this case, maybe it's time we professional media types stepped up and closed down the circus for good.