Thank you, David Carr, of The New York Times, for clarifying for me how I got the idea that race had figured in the fatal encounter between George Zimmerman and his victim, Trayvon Martin. I must have gotten the idea through the process of osmosis that comes into play when a major news organization broadcasts something and word of mouth funnels it into the public’s consciousness.
The broadcast in this case was March 22 on NBC’s “Today” show. The program on that day aired a portion of what purported to be an exchange between Zimmerman and a police dispatcher about the Martin-Zimmerman encounter. According to the broadcast, Zimmerman had volunteered to the dispatcher, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good…he looks black.”
As Carr recounted the conversation in his April 23 column in the Times, “Here is what Zimmerman actually said:
“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.” The dispatcher then asks, “OK, and this guy – is he white, black or Hispanic?’ Mr. Zimmerman pauses and replies, “He looks black.”
If racism is a part of this dreadful incident, it certainly wasn’t shown in that conversation. The Today show wrenched Zimmerman’s words totally out of context. NBC apologized in a statement it issued and took disciplinary action against six staffers responsible for the editing lapse. But as Carr complained forcefully, nobody on the Today show looked into the camera and admitted journalistic wrongdoing directly to the show’s audience.
Years ago, the Des Moines Register committed a similar lapse when it reported about a local prosecutor that he had “left town and family.” He merely had gone out of town for a job interview, but the serious implication of the head and story, that he had abandoned his family, was left uncorrected.
The press commits numerous errors. Studies indicate that perhaps half of all news stories have mistakes. Errors can be reduced but they cannot be eliminated. The most the press can do about mistakes is correct them when they occur. Too often corrections are grudging and guarded. Even when they are forthcoming, they may be misdirected. I learned about the “Today” show blunder not from NBC but from the Times. As I said, thank you, David Carr.