On Monday, Judge Debra Nelson – the same judge who presided over George Zimmerman’s criminal trial – threw out his libel suit against NBC and several of its reporters.
Even though NBC had apologized for its actions and fired two reporters, George Zimmerman could not have been expecting justice. He had no political value to the justice system and even less to the media.
What had to surprise him, though, is the reason why Nelson threw out the suit and spared NBC a major payout. According to Nelson, Zimmerman had made himself a “public figure” a year before the shooting.
Zimmerman did so by “voluntarily injecting his views into the public controversy surrounding race relations and public safety in Sanford” – more on this cruel twist in a minute.
There was no denying the facts in the case. On March 19, 2012, three weeks after Zimmerman shot black teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, WJTV in Miami, an NBC affiliate, began setting Zimmerman up for the kill.
Reporter Jeff Burnside fronted a piece that featured a stunningly deceptive edit in George Zimmerman’s initial call to the non-emergency dispatcher on Febr. 26. The unedited tape ran as follows:
GZ: 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.
SPD: OK, and this guy – is he black, white or Hispanic?
GZ: He looks black.
What the WJTV audience heard was something different: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” That was it. The dispatcher’s question was edited out.
In that the issue of racial profiling was at the front and center of the debate, Burnside, who claimed “enormous respect” for Al Sharpton, had to know how guilty this edit made Zimmerman appear.
On March 20 and again on March 22, Lilia Luciano, reporting from Sanford for national NBC News, aired a news segment with a comparable edit, the second of these two occasions on the “Today” show.
Luciano set up the excerpted audio by describing Martin as the “the teen gunned down by Neighborhood Watchman George Zimmerman last month as he walked through this gated community wearing a hoodie.”
The edited phone exchange that followed fit the grievance industry narrative perfectly: Zimmerman targeted Martin not only because he looked black, but also because he wore the kind of clothing young black men distinctively wore, namely the hoodie.
GZ: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
SPD: Did you see what he was wearing?
GZ: Yeah, a dark hoodie.
To make this distortion work, NBC also edited out Zimmerman’s complete response when asked what Martin was wearing.
“Yeah, a dark hoodie like a gray hoodie,” said Zimmerman matter-of-factly, adding, “He wore jeans or sweat pants and white tennis shoes.”
On March 27, NBC’s Ron Allen made the mistake of exposing this edit to the full light of day on a “Today” show feature.
Allen, who is himself black, led with the same abridged quote, both in audio and in text. Then, while Allen explained the case, NBC showed two innocent photos of Martin taken years earlier, this despite the availability of the more recent hoodie photo.
Allen then played a more subtly dismembered excerpt from Zimmerman’s exchange with the SPD dispatcher, again with both text and audio:
SPD: Are you following him? [2:24]
SPD: OK. We don’t need you to do that. [2:26]
Left on the editing room floor was Zimmerman’s response to the dispatcher’s request, “OK.” In fact, Zimmerman took the dispatcher’s advice and stopped following Martin. Those who watched NBC would have thought otherwise.
Miami Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, she of the pink cowboy hats, certainly did. Later that same day, Wilson famously ranted, “Trayvon was hunted down like a rabid dog. He was shot in the street. He was racially profiled.”
In fact, Zimmerman made about as unlikely a racist poster child as America could produce, and perversely, his very lack of racism would provide Nelson the cover to call him a “public figure” and throw out his case.
Zimmerman had publicly involved himself in a December 2010 incident in which a police lieutenant’s son named Justin Collison sucker punched a black homeless man named Sherman Ware outside a bar.
Although Ware suffered a concussion, and there was video evidence of Collison’s action, no action was taken against Collison for nearly a month.
As Zimmerman would later relate, he and his wife, Shellie, were upset at the lack of media attention the case was getting. So they printed fliers demanding that the community “hold accountable” officers responsible for misconduct.
They then drove the fliers around to area churches and passed them out on a Sunday morning.
Later at a public meeting in January 2011, Zimmerman took the floor and said, “I would just like to state that the law is written in black and white. It should not and cannot be enforced in the gray for those that are in the thin blue line.”
As a result of the publicity, Sanford Police Chief Brian Tooley, whom Zimmerman blasted for his “illegal cover-up and corruption,” was forced to resign, and Collison was arrested.
Unfortunately for Zimmerman, this case was not “public” enough. I could find no mention of this character-defining event in any NBC report, not even in the book NBC’s legal analyst Lisa Bloom wrote about the case, “Suspicion Nation.”
As it happened, Zimmerman headlined his fliers about Ware with a famous quote from Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
He might more accurately have quoted another Anglo-Irishman, Oscar Wilde, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
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