Analysis: Manufacturing the Martin narrative


Someday, a book will be written on the way our major media organizations have deliberately slanted coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Florida.   Hopefully the final chapter is not a second tragedy.

The press has invested much effort in blowing the story as far into orbit as possible.   Some of it might be due to the general laziness of many reporters.   They have a tendency to grab press releases from liberal organizations they trust, and run the information without a lot of vetting or fact-checking.

Just for starters, look at the almost universally deployed photo of Trayvon Martin:

Martin was a 17-year-old football player at the time of his death.   Here’s a photo of what he looked like wearing his hoodie, as published in the Miami Herald.   You’re starting to see this image more frequently, although there is suspicion that some news organizations are Photoshopping it to clean up the grain and lighten his skin:


On the other hand, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman is almost invariably depicted through his unhappy mug shot:

But this is what he looks like when he’s smiling, according to the Orlando Sentinel:

Now, it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that nothing about Trayvon Martin’s appearance at the time of his death justifies shooting him, nor does George Zimmerman’s hundred-watt smile give him a license to kill.   But it’s difficult to compare the widespread use of these photos without concluding that deliberate attempts to influence the reader’s emotions are being made.   Among other things, the “baby-faced??? Martin photo pumps up the you-gotta-be-kidding-me factor of the story, making Zimmerman’s actions look more unreasonable.

It’s even worse in Zimmerman’s case, because when this story first became national news, before his photo began appearing, he was generally described as “white.???   As recently as March 19, CBS News described him as “a white neighborhood watch volunteer.???

Then Zimmerman’s photo began to circulate, and it became apparent that he takes rather strongly after his Peruvian mother.   With astonishing speed, his description changed to the entirely new “white Hispanic??? classification, which has almost never been used in media reports until now.   Jim Treacher at the Daily Caller has a fine collection of “white Hispanic George Zimmerman??? references proliferating through the media with viral speed.

For myself, I first noticed the “white Hispanic??? label in the New York Times.   On his radio show today, Rush Limbaugh said his researchers found only four instances in the entire history of the Times where this term had been previously used.   Over at the Daily Caller, Treacher thinks the term could be a way for the media to cover its tracks and justify their previous descriptions of Zimmerman as simply “white??? – a decision many of our hard-working “journalists??? may have made based on his last name.   I’m not sure I’m feeling quite so charitable.   The press does not want the racial tension to drain out of this story, and their helpful political advisors do not want it transforming into animosity against Hispanics, a group Democrats desperately wish to avoid alienating.

The general outline of the story we were originally sold is that Trayvon Martin was strolling innocently through an upscale “gated community??? when a white neighborhood watch zealot blew him away, for no reason beyond the color of his skin.   As it turns out, the gated community in question is not a Wonder Bread kingdom of privilege – the units sell in the $120,000 range – and it has a history of crimes and break-ins.   Again, this does not automatically exonerate Zimmerman of wrongdoing, but it makes his behavior easier to understand??? which drains some of the juice from the story.

As does the police report of the February 26 incident, which the Orlando Sentinel describes as follows:

Zimmerman was on his way to the grocery store when he spotted Trayvon walking through his gated community.

Trayvon was visiting his father’s fianc??©e, who lived there. He had been suspended from school in Miami after being found with an empty marijuana baggie. Miami schools have a zero-tolerance policy for drug possession.

Zimmerman called police and reported a suspicious person, describing Trayvon as black, acting strangely and perhaps on drugs.

Zimmerman got out of his SUV to follow Trayvon on foot. When a dispatch employee asked Zimmerman if he was following the 17-year-old, Zimmerman said yes. The dispatcher told Zimmerman he did not need to do that.

There is about a one-minute gap during which police say they’re not sure what happened.

Zimmerman told them he lost sight of Trayvon and was walking back to his SUV when Trayvon approached him from the left rear, and they exchanged words.

Trayvon asked Zimmerman if he had a problem. Zimmerman said no and reached for his cell phone, he told police.

Trayvon then said, “Well, you do now” or something similar and punched Zimmerman in the nose.

Zimmerman fell to the ground and Trayvon got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk, he told police.

Zimmerman began yelling for help.

Several witnesses heard those cries, and there’s been a dispute about from whom they came: Zimmerman or Trayvon.

Lawyers for Trayvon’s family say it was Trayvon, but police say their evidence indicates it was Zimmerman.

One witness, who has since talked to local television news reporters, told police he saw Zimmerman on the ground with Trayvon on top, pounding him and was unequivocal that it was Zimmerman who was crying for help.

Zimmerman then shot Trayvon once in the chest from very close range, according to authorities.

When police arrived less than two minutes later, Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose, had a swollen lip and had bloody lacerations to the back of his head.

That’s quite a bit different than the storyline percolating through the media for the past couple of weeks.   Many of the details are still in dispute, and the conduct of the investigating officers is still open to question, but this account makes it seem a bit less outrageous that Zimmerman wasn’t arrested immediately.   In fact, there was some effort made to plant the idea that reports of Zimmerman’s injuries were fabricated by the police after the fact, but that is not true.   It’s all in the initial reports, which the Sanford police department has now made available to the public.

Let us pause again to note that even if Trayvon Martin was shot while beating the hell out of George Zimmerman, it doesn’t absolve Zimmerman of responsibility for his actions, or automatically justify shooting Martin.   One of the key points under dispute is whether Zimmerman provoked the altercation.   The important point to be made is that a great deal of reasonable doubt exists??? and convictions do not occur in the presence of reasonable doubt.

Even Florida’s “Stand Your Ground??? self-defense law, now under sustained attack as a legislative outrage that could bathe the Sunshine State in blood at any moment, is not as simple as some reporting suggests.   Have you heard a lot of complaining about “Stand Your Ground??? vigilante killings before now?   Twenty other states have such laws, and by far the most high-profile news story including these laws, prior to the Martin shooting, was the story of 18-year-old widow Sarah McKinley of Oklahoma, who shot a knife-wielding intruder in January, while protecting her baby.

Florida’s version of the “Stand Your Ground??? principle will certainly be a topic of much discussion in the weeks to come, and there’s nothing wrong with that – every law should be a topic of scrutiny and skepticism.   But these laws obviously aren’t leading to pseudo-legal killing sprees across Florida, or the nation??? or else you would have heard a great deal about it, long before now.

Nor is there a wave of angry white people shooting black youths, contrary to the incendiary rhetoric of those trying to fan the flames of Sanford.   Heather MacDonald of National Review offers some statistics:

Most homicides are intraracial, but the chance of a black being killed by a white or Hispanic is much lower than the chance that a white or Hispanic will be killed by a black. Seventeen percent of what the FBI calls “white??? homicide victims in 2009 were  killed by blacks, compared to 8 percent of black homicide victims who were killed by “whites.???

There were two and a half times as many white and Hispanic victims of black killers in 2009 as there were black victims of white and Hispanic killers, even though the black population is one-sixth that of whites and Hispanics combined. If Hispanics were removed from the category of “white??? killers of blacks, the percentage of blacks killed by Anglo whites would plummet, since a significant percentage of what the FBI calls “white???-on-black killings represent gang warfare between Hispanic and black gangs.

Just this morning, the veteran prosecutor assigned to the case by Florida Governor Rick Scott explained to ABC News that “the state must go forward and be able to prove it’s case beyond a reasonable doubt??? So it makes the case in general more difficult than a normal criminal case.”   It’s not the slam-dunk jaw-dropping outrage it has been portrayed as??? and that portrayal has led us to a moment of anger, confusion, and incipient violence.   The Orlando Sentinel says George Zimmerman is now in hiding, absent from his job since the day of the shooting, and he is likely to remain that way for a long time to come.

Update: Apologies for misspelling Trayvon Martin’s name in several places, and thanks to those who pointed it out.  I have corrected the errors.