Part 2—The Times reports height and weight: Balconies rarely fall off the sides of major American buildings.
Presumably, that reflects the competence of those in the building trades—and the attention and care they devote to their craft. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/2/12.)
But balcony failure has been widespread as the mainstream press corps has tried to discuss the killing of Trayvon Martin. Consider a set of facts which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.
On the front page of yesterday’s Times, a team of reporters presented a sprawling report on the events surrounding Martin’s death. The piece ran almost 5000 words. Inside the paper, the report was accompanied by a large, detailed graphic.
Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the style of this report, comparing its novelistic elements with its failure to perform some basic journalistic functions. For today, let’s consider one brief passage in this lengthy report.
You might call it the tale of the tape! In one part of its report, the Times discusses the way the fatal altercation between Martin and George Zimmerman may have started.
Dan Barry is listed as lead reporter. At one point, he reported the relative size of the two combatants:
BARRY (4/2/12): However [the altercation] started, witnesses described to the 911 dispatcher what resulted: the neighborhood watch coordinator, 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, and the visitor, 6-foot-1 and 150, wrestling on the ground.Presumably, none of the people who called 911 rattled off anyone’s height and weight. But there you see the tale of the tape as the Times has now reported it. Martin was four inches taller than Zimmerman; Zimmerman outweighed Martin by 20 pounds.
Or so the Times is now reporting. On March 26, Charles Blow reported that Martin was “nearly six feet three inches tall but only 140 pounds.” He seemed to base his statement on talks with Martin’s mother.
The data in yesterday’s news report contradict a widely-proffered portrait of this fatal encounter. If the Times’ current account is basically accurate, you might describe this earlier account from MSNBC’s Ed Schultz as a bit of balcony failure:
SCHULTZ (3/19/12): Neighbors said Zimmerman was fixated on crime and focused on young black males. Zimmerman’s father says race was not an issue.In earlier accounts of this tragic encounter, this general tale of the tape was common. It was used to advance a portrait in which a much larger man preyed on a much smaller person.
George Zimmerman was 28 years old and weighed 250 pounds. Trayvon Martin was 17 and weighed 140 pounds. He has no criminal record whatsoever.
Trayvon Martin's mother says she thinks her son was the one who felt threatened.
By the end of last week, it was fairly clear that these early reports were quite possibly wrong—but the balcony failure continued. One example: Last Friday, Salon published this report by Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Right at the start of her piece, Jones-Brown again advanced the portrait of the much larger man and the much smaller child. Long after it became clear that this portrait might be bogus, the folks at Salon kept sending it out, building bathos and endangering those in the street:
JONES-BROWN (3/30/12): I am both a former prosecutor and the mother of a 15-year-old son. When my son was little, like most moms, I told him to beware of strangers; that even in a nice neighborhood, like ours, a pedophile might drive through looking for a child victim. I told him to watch out for strangers, even in nice neighborhoods, because once he was inside the trunk of a car, I might not be able to help him.“Based on the photos?” Good God! If construction companies assembled data that way, balconies would crash down into the street every day of the week.
Trayvon Martin was 17 years old and, based on the photos, not very big—like my son.
Based on media accounts and the reports of the 911 calls, he was walking through a nice, but unfamiliar neighborhood, talking on his cellphone when a strange adult male began to follow him in a SUV. At one point, he thought he had lost him, but the male reappeared following him again. This time the man, who was nearly twice his size (in body mass), got out of the vehicle, approached him, and had a gun.
Can we talk? Several parts of that account seem to go beyond the facts of this case as they are currently known. But by last Friday, it had become fairly clear that George Zimmerman probably wasn’t “nearly twice [Martin’s] size in body mass.”
But so what? Salon published this account all the same, right at the start of a major article about this very important topic. Almost surely, this is a case of balcony failure—a type of failure which defines the work of the mainstream “press corps” over the past twenty years.
Why in the world would a professor of criminal law publish something like that? (“Based on the photos!” Good lord!) More to our current point, why would a major news org like Salon publish such work, long after it became clear that the portrait it advanced was quite possibly wrong?
Why did Salon conduct business that way? We don’t know, but contractors who clown around in such ways may find themselves sued, or in jail.
Readers may think that the tale of the tape is a trivial matter. But Jones-Brown led her piece with this portrait for an obvious reason, just as Schultz (and others) had done before her. If the New York Times is right, this involves another set of bungled facts—another set of the bogus facts which were used to build novelized tales.
All around the landscape of the press corps’ attempts to discuss this case, such balcony failure can be observed. Over the past many years, your “press corps” has been overwhelmed by even the simplest facts in a wide array of cases. Again and again, journalistic skills barely seem to exist when the people of our "press corps" attempt to conduct their work.
Does this tale of the tape really matter? Does it matter if Zimmerman weighs 170 pounds, as opposed to the previous 250?
It only matters if the truth matters. Such facts were treated as highly relevant when they were used to construct a tale in which a very small person was overpowered by a behemoth.
Salon was still pushing that story last Friday. Did we hear a balcony fail?
Tomorrow: The form of that New York Times report—and also, what Piers Morgan said
Concerning Zimmerman’s weight loss: Early on, people like Schultz built a novelized tale around Zimmerman’s large “body mass.”
If the New York Times is right, the man lost 80 pounds in a couple of weeks. But uh-oh! How does the New York Times know that Zimmerman weighs 170 pounds?
Yesterday, in 5000 words, the newspaper didn’t say!
Was that good journalistic practice? More on that question tomorrow—plus, what Piers Morgan said.