Zimmerman jury renders verdict: Media to hang
There’s a dirty word being flung around the Zimmerman courtroom this week. It isn’t “coon,” or “punk,” or “vigilante,” or “confronted,” or any of the other words Mark O’Mara has tried to have thrown out so the jury can’t hear what his client actually did. It’s a word whose negative connotations are closer to universal – a word Americans of all stripes and persuasions have come to recognize as shorthand for utter loathsomeness.
Potential juror after potential juror has heaped scorn upon “the media,” accusing our news outlets (both national and local) of inflaming and/or distorting the situation in Sanford – and according to some, even creating it.
Now, public disdain for the media is hardly front-page news. It’s like distrust of Congress: a fact of life that’s as certain as death, taxes and the new M. Night Shyamalan movie sucking. But I’ve been struck by the outright knee-jerk hostility these real-life Rural Jurors have displayed toward newspapers and TV new outlets – and how firmly they hold to that attitude even when their reasoning makes no sense whatsoever. For example, one juror-in-waiting proclaimed that he didn’t pay attention to the media’s interpretation of any occurrence; then, when asked to describe what he knew about the case, repeated Zimmerman’s version of events to a T. If the media holds no sway in his house, he must have been getting the defense’s talking points sent to him by carrier pigeon for the last year. For some people, it seems, “the media” means “stuff I hear but don’t agree with.”
For others, it simply means “stuff I can’t be bothered with.” A chill went down my spine when one remarkably truculent young woman stated that, as a recent college graduate, she would quite naturally seek out business-related stories over tidbits like the Trayvon Martin shooting, which didn’t affect her because …well, because people die every day. And thus another Ayn Rand reader enters the judicial system.
Last Saturday, the Tampa Bay Times’ Ben Montgomery commented on the aversion the jury pool had already begun to exhibit toward the Fourth Estate. His story was a sorrowful rundown of prospective jurors admitting that they don’t read newspapers. But typical of the myopia the press often displays when addressing the public’s lack of respect for it, he failed to consider that at least some of those jurors might have good reasons for shunning the “news” they’re offered. In two different places, he made fun of jurors who had admitted they don’t read the Orlando Sentinel. Montgomery, whether it was due to ignorance of the Orlando scene or just instinctive protectiveness toward the old-boy network that is the daily press, took this as evidence of intellectual laziness. He didn’t allow for the possibility that some of those people might have chosen to avoid their hometown paper simply because it’s terrible. Let’s not confuse ordinary incuriousness for the bipartisan loathing only journalistic ineptitude can provoke. (And let’s count our blessings when it’s appropriate: If I had to choose between a jury that pursued no news whatsoever and one that got all its news from Fox, I know which one I’d go with.)
How did we get to a point where the functioning of the legal system rests on people who, if they follow the news at all, have been duped into thinking its biases point in the exact wrong direction? It’s because the media – print and otherwise – have spent decades allowing themselves to be bullied. They’ve been bullied by their own audiences, so desperate for ratings and readership that they kowtow gladly to the worst “common-sense” prejudices of the mob. But the public can’t take all the blame. The most serious bullying has come from well-funded right-wing disinformation outfits like the Heritage Foundation, whose drive to roll back (and even to deny) the successes of the New Deal and Great Society has relied upon what media critic Eric Alterman calls “working the refs.” For decades now, the conservative intimidation machine has stipulated that “fairness” equals plenty of airtime and print space for counterfactual fear-mongering. And counterfactual fear-mongering doesn’t exactly allow for a vigorous and honest examination of the lot of nonwhites.
That’s why nobody bats an eyelash when a bunch of potential jurors claim that the only time they paid attention to the Zimmerman/Martin story was “when it first happened.” In reality, nobody knew about the shooting when it first happened – not even Tracy Martin, who had to go looking for his son after law enforcement had decided to treat him like a John Doe (for no good reason I’ve yet heard). What the jurors mean is that they paid attention to the case when the media first deigned to tell them about it, which was roughly around the time a bunch of “out-of-town agitators” showed up to make a stink.
In a perfect world, Zimmerman would have been arrested immediately on that fateful February night. Failing that, the local media should have shamed the police into making such an arrest. Instead, they waited around for citizen observers across the entire country to do their work for them, then covered the crisis and controversy they themselves had helped cause. The message to the uninformed: “the media” is pandering to a community it doesn’t even actually cover. (Unless all of those jurors have theGrio bookmarked, which I somehow doubt.)
If we can’t ask for local news outlets to do a better job of covering the social forces that lead to incidents like the Martin slaying, we can at least ask that they be more responsible in dealing with the aftermath of those incidents. A few days ago, CFN13 legal analyst Mark NeJame had the audacity to state that nobody could complain about the eventual racial makeup of the Zimmerman jury, since Sanford is only 11 percent black, and a full third of the jury pool as it then stood was less than 100 percent white. Statements like that make you want to disconnect your cable, retreat into the wilds of Apopka and become Ted Kaczynski – when what you should do is stick around and keep fighting the good fight of forcing an essential social actor like “the media” to redeem itself.
A few days ago, I got into a brief online argument with someone who was parroting perfectly the pro-Zimmerman party line: Hispanics cannot be “white”; if the defendant is found innocent, “the blacks” will riot; and if the jury ends up being an inferior one, it’ll be because of inherent bias – toward the victim. And guess whose fault that will be? You guessed it:
“The media wants this to be white on black crime so bad they can taste it,” he wrote.
Almost without thinking, I countered:
“You can’t blame the media for people thinking that blacks will riot if Zimmy gets off but whites won’t riot if he’s found guilty. You can’t blame the media for most of the other stupid shit those people said this week.”
Almost as soon as I read the words on my screen, I thought, “Oh yeah … you kind of can.”
I wish the likes of NeJame would stop making it so easy for me to paint myself into that kind of rhetorical corner. I wish I could stand up for “the media” without feeling like an idiot. It would be a lot easier to caution other people against throwing out the baby with the bathwater if the baby just weren’t so damn ugly.