Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
Any hope that the media might fairly and responsibly cover the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin was effectively doomed the moment Al Sharpton descended on Sanford, Florida, and started holding rallies with the victim’s family. Recall that Sharpton once said of Clarence Thomas’s tenure on the Supreme Court, “I remember growing up reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Now I get to see it.” Unless they agree with his race-driven political agenda, Sharpton is not above accusing even African Americans of wanting to return to a day when the Fugitive Slave Act was still on the books.
Once upon a time, Sharpton was covered by the media only as a colorful race hustler who stirred up trouble. Now Sharpton is the media, host of the MSNBC show Politics Nation. Despite scant evidence that race was a factor in Martin’s death—George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin while on a neighborhood watch patrol, is Hispanic and claims the killing was self-defense—Sharpton came to Florida to tape on location, thundering that Martin was a victim of racial injustice. Not surprisingly, Sharpton promulgated at least one glaring untruth, claiming Martin was in the morgue for three days before his parents were informed he’d been killed. “How do you leave this kid in the room like he’s a worthless piece of meat?” he railed. However, this is contradicted by the fact Martin’s parents were discussing their son’s killing on a local news broadcast the next day.
Asked about this less-than-responsible coverage of a criminal investigation, MSNBC issued a statement defending its host: “It’s because of his work and his decades of activism that Rev. Sharpton brings such a unique perspective to our lineup.” Unique perspective? Given his handling of the Freddie’s Fashion Mart protest in Harlem in 1995, Sharpton is the only MSNBC host with a history of instigating fatal mob violence.
But if a major news corporation deems Sharpton fit to cover the Trayvon Martin killing, the more depressing sign of the times is that the rest of the media have been no better. A senior NBC producer was fired after it was revealed the Today show had edited Zimmerman’s 911 phone call to make it sound like he had volunteered the information that Martin was black, as if that alone made the teenager suspect. It turns out the 911 dispatcher had specifically asked Zimmerman about Martin’s race. CNN later ran a segment on the 911 call that went over the static-filled tape with Zapruder-like zeal, suggesting that Zimmerman had said the racial slur “f—ing coons,” though the network later conceded it was more likely he said “f—ing punks” or “f—ing cold.” When a 13-year-old witness to the incident appeared to corroborate Zimmerman’s account, saying Martin was on top of Zimmerman during the struggle between the two, the media broke the normal protocol of protecting minors and revealed his name. The media also ran with grainy photos that purported to contradict Zimmerman’s claim he had hurt his head in the scuffle with Martin. Other photos surfaced showing Zimmerman did appear to have abrasions on his head. And, bizarrely, the media fanned the racial flames by adopting the term “white Hispanic” in describing Zimmerman’s ethnicity. (One can only imagine the denunciations if commentators started referring to the president as a “white African American.”)
While the investigation into Martin’s death was proceeding, the media still found time in recent weeks to badly mishandle the murder of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi woman in San Diego. Her head had been bashed in with a tire iron, and next to her body was a note calling her a terrorist and telling her to leave the country. Police were quick to urge caution as to the killer’s motives—but the media reacted in predictable fashion: The Daily Beast, Reuters, and many others ran sensational headlines suggesting Alawadi’s death was a hate crime.
Alawadi was in the midst of divorcing her husband, and her 17-year-old daughter was distraught about her own arranged marriage to a cousin. Police subsequently found the daughter had received a text message reading “The detective will find out tell them cnt talk.” The investigation now centers on her family. (Even after all this emerged, Time refused to give up grinding the axe of identity politics: “Shaima Alawadi’s Murder: A Hate Crime Against Women?”)
As for the Martin case, last week George Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The right thing to do is reserve judgment until the evidence emerges in a court of law. One hopes that the media haven’t poisoned the well such that Zimmerman can’t get a fair trial. Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering America has a black president, and the country has seen undeniable racial progress. Given the political leanings and professional standards of America’s newsrooms, it’s increasingly implausible to say the media have.