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What the George Zimmerman verdict means — and doesn't mean — for race and media in America

George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict was covered live by all major cable TV newschannels.


George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict was covered live by all major cable TV newschannels.



They have asked to remain anonymous, refusing to talk with the media. It’s a move which makes all kinds of sense for them; speaking out publicly now will only focus the public’s rage and disappointment on their lives in awful ways.

Still, I hope the jurors in the George Zimmerman trial eventually decide to speak with one or two quality journalists about their decision to acquit the former neighborhood watch captain of murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. (news outlets are already asking the judge to reconsider her decision to keep their names from the public.)

Because, as dangerous as it may be for them to speak up, the rest of the country sorely needs to hear how they reached the decision they made.



For proof of that, one need only look across the cable TV news landscape Saturday night after the verdict was announced. The actual decision was delivered lightning fast in a simple “not guilty” declaration. But that didn’t stop cable news outlets from making a feast of the supposed motivations and meanings behind the verdict with the barest scraps of evidence.

On Fox News, the acquittal wasn’t enough for anchor Geraldo Rivera, who spent much of the channel’s coverage insisting that Zimmerman should never have been charged with murder in the death of Martin, who was walking lawfully through a Sanford, Fla. subdivision when he caught the watch captain’s attention. He blamed politics ad public hysteria for the decision to arrest and charge Zimmerman, who shot the teen as the two were fighting.

Rivera insisted the jury rejected second degree murder charges against Zimmerman “almost immediately,” with no evidence. He also interviewed a jury consultant who assumed that, because a particular juror asked lots of questions during jury selection, she must have asked the vague question about manslaughter charges the jury floated during deliberations (the court asked for specifics, and the jury never responded again before delivering its verdict.)

“To think that (Zimmerman) acted out of hate, out of ill will, out of a depraved mind to profile racially and inflict punishment on this 17-year-old…that is simply not the case,” Rivera said.

At MSNBC, anchors there second-guessed the prosecution, stopping just short of accusing the attorneys of throwing the case, as host Melissa Harris-Perry wondered about the odd atmosphere during State Attorney Angela Corey’s press conference. Corey’s oddly jubilant tone came under scrutiny, along with accusations prosecutors failed to adequately probe inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s story.

But some of the harshest words may have come on CNN, where Zimmerman’s brother Robert Zimmerman Jr. spoke with anchor Piers Morgan, accusing Martin’s family of “throwing the race card on the table” after the teen’s killing, suggesting that civil rights activists wouldn’t have pressured authorities into prosecuting his brother if he had been black.

“There are many more unsolved homicides in Chicago than there are in Sanford, Florida,” said Robert Zimmerman, who seemed to forget that Martin’s murder was never an unsolved homicide – civil rights activists protested because Sanford police knew who killed the teen and didn’t seem inclined to arrest him. The interview only cemented grumblings about Twitter posts the brother has made which seemed to be borderline racist.

The outpouring on cable TV news and social media – even Oprah Winfrey took flak for tweeting messages supportive of a show on her cable channel, seemingly oblivious to the Zimmerman verdict – was to be expected. Because so little of the actual trial centered on race issues, they have come roaring to the forefront in the post-verdict analysis.

During the trial, which became a wall-to-wall event for cable newschannels scrambling for ratings points, each twist in the proceedings was dissected like a football game, complete with re-enactments on HLN and armchair quarterbacking everywhere. With no statements from the jury, expect that dynamic to only get worse, as talking heads squeeze every drop of drama from a trial which was coveredl ike a real-life version of a Law & Order episode.

Talk show host Steve Harvey tweeted “a child is dead and the man that killed him is free,” ending his message by asking “my country tis of thee?” Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s Girls, also tweeted shock over the verdict noting “my heart is with (Martin’s mother) Sybrina Fulton, Rachel Jeantel, everyone who loved Trayvon and has been sent message his life didn’t matter.” Conservative pundit Ann Coulter, often criticized for her racially inflammatory language, wrote simply "hallelujah."

Martin’s family proved the most conciliatory of all on social media, with the teen’s father Tracy Martin tweeting “god blessed me and Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the FIGHT we along with all of you put up for him. GOD BLESS.”

But all the verdict really may prove, as I have been saying for some time, is that this crime was missing a key piece of evidence; no objective witness saw how the fight between Martin and Zimmerman started, which is a key component to judging the outcome.

Without someone besides Zimmerman saying definitively who was the aggressor – the watch captain says Martin attacked him – how do you get past reasonable doubt?

Other questions also beg an answer. Did Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws, which were included as part of the jury instruction, make a difference? Did the many prosecution witnesses who seemed to score points for the defense – including a medical examiner who said many times on the stand he couldn’t remember details from the autopsy – make a difference, either?

Why did the jury decline to clarify their request on information about the manslaughter charge?

Amid all the bloviating to come on what this case means – along with efforts by the NAACP to push for a federal civil rights prosecution and perhaps a civil suit from Martin’s parents – these questions stand out. And they can only be answered by one of six people.

That’s why I hope the jury reconsiders their stance and talks to America about how they reached their verdict.

Because, damaging as it may be for them to go public, it may be the only thing which can help heal the country.

[Last modified: Monday, July 15, 2013 7:42am]


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