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Trayvon Martin photos fuel a visual tug-of-war

The image is a little blurry, showing a young black teenager, a wisp of dark fuzz across his upper lip, smiling slightly into the camera to reveal an array of gold-capped teeth.

It is the kind of photo young kids take every day, sent to friends by text message or Twitter post.

But this image, which purports to show slain teen Trayvon Martin, has become Exhibit A in an increasingly ugly battle over the image of the 17-year-old and his killer, George Zimmerman.

Martin was shot a month ago in a gated subdivision in Sanford, sparking nationwide protests. Zimmerman, a crime watch volunteer, told police Martin attacked him and he shot the teen in self defense. The youth's family has pushed back, saying he was not an aggressive kid.

In a media world where everything is increasingly 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 others who contend activists have hijacked the process for their own ends.

And one of the primary battlegrounds is where news of Martin's death first circulated: online and in social media.

The Daily Caller website, founded by Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, featured the photo of Martin and his teeth Monday, along with messages the site's executive editors said were retrieved by an anonymous source from the youth's now-closed Twitter account.

According to the website, Martin tweeted under the name NO_LIMIT_N----, passing along profanity-laced messages that joked about school and friends.

"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 a quote emailed to me.

"We chose that photo of Trayvon Martin because it was the picture he chose to represent himself on Twitter," Martoko added. "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."

Initially, the circumstances of Martin's death — an unarmed teen gunned down by a volunteer neighborhood watchman — brought sympathy for the teen's family and condemnation of Zimmerman, who seemed to pursue the teen against advice of a 911 dispatcher.

But as noted liberal activists Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others lead protest marches to prod police into arresting Zimmerman, a backlash has developed among conservatives skeptical of racism claims.

Another website, Wagist, posted pictures from a MySpace account featuring what it says are Martin's multiple tattoos, eventually concluding with little evidence he "may have been a small time drug dealer."

That conclusion may have been influenced by stories in the Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald earlier this week detailing Martin's three suspensions from school, including one for possessing an empty baggie with marijuana residue.

Conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg sent a tweet noting: "NYT (New York Times) calls Zimmerman 'White Hispanic.' Why add white?"

One explanation: because Hispanics can be white, black or brown, and journalists are communicating why people, including the Sanford police, initially assumed Zimmerman was white. Goldberg tweeted a different explanation: "because it fits the media storyline: WHITE vigilante kills unarmed black teen."

But in all the pushing back, there have been serious mistakes.

Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin's new site Twitchy apologized after displaying a photo it originally labelled as an image of Martin, showing a shirtless black teen with his pants hanging low, underwear showing, making an obscene gesture to camera. It was not him.

The fault lines here break along issues of race. As legislators and TV pundits wear hooded sweatshirts to protest the unfair profiling of young black men, others use images of gold teeth and tattoos to argue some justification for the fear.

Kenny Irby, a photojournalism expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the Tampa Bay Times), told the Orlando Sentinel that the more recent pictures can offer a more accurate picture of how Martin looked at his time of death, while evoking old stereotypes.

"This has been a big part of how American society sees young black men," Irby said. "All of these images have assumptions."

When Martin's death first exploded into a nationwide story, supporters wondered how the news of his killing would have been treated if the teen were a less sympathetic figure.

Now we may have an answer.

And we are 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?

Trayvon Martin photos fuel a visual tug-of-war 03/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 29, 2012 10:45am]
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