Part 2—Truly heinous conduct: Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida on Sunday evening, February 26.
The Orlando Sentinel is the local big-city daily. Except for a brief crime report on February 28, the Sentinel began to cover the case on March 9.
In that initial news report, the Sentinel reported that Tracy Martin had called for George Zimmerman’s arrest at a news conference in Orlando. Later in her report, Rene Stutzman described the state of the investigation and noted some points of agreement:
STUTZMAN (3/9/12): Police are still investigating, trying to determine whether Zimmerman is guilty of manslaughter, according to department records. They have interviewed Zimmerman several times and had him re-enact what happened, said Sanford police Chief Bill Lee Jr.That was the start of the local coverage. The police chief seemed to say that you could hear one gunshot.
Detectives should complete their investigation next week at the latest, he said, and will let the State Attorney's Office decide whether to file criminal charges.
Both sides agree that Trayvon and Zimmerman scuffled before the shooting, and there is evidence to corroborate Zimmerman's self-defense claims, the chief said.
When police arrived, an officer overheard Zimmerman say, “‘I was yelling for someone to help me but no one would help me,’” according to an incident report released Thursday. It also noted that the back of Zimmerman's shirt was wet and had grass clippings on it, as if he had been on his back on the ground.
On one recorded 911 call, the police chief said, "you can hear the struggle and the gunshot."
On March 17, the story went national in the New York Times with a news report by Lizette Alvarez. The report was larded with factual errors, only one of which was ever formally corrected.
That said, the first five paragraphs of the report were about as egregious as crime reporting can get.
What follows is truly egregious reporting. Included is an egregious factual error—an egregious error the New York Times never corrected or explained.
So-called journalism departments should preserve this text in amber. It should be studied as a leading example of what was once called yellow journalism:
ALVAREZ (3/17/12): Nearly three weeks after an unarmed teenager was killed in a small city north of Orlando, stirring an outcry, a few indisputable facts remain: the teenager, who was black, was carrying nothing but a bag of Skittles, some money and a can of iced tea when he was shot. The neighborhood crime watch volunteer who got out of his car and shot him is white and Hispanic. He has not been arrested and is claiming self-defense.Right in her opening paragraph, Alvarez seemed to frame the killing as a racial matter. (Not all killings are.) She opened with the (irrelevant) fact that Martin had a bag of Skittles at the time of the incident.
Beyond that, however, little is clear about the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17.
As criticism of the police investigation mounts, so too do the calls for swift action in a case with heavy racial overtones. Protests grow larger each week, and lawyers for the family are now asking the Department of Justice to intervene. The case also brings into sharp focus Florida's self-defense laws, which give people who feel threatened greater latitude in defending themselves than most states.
The police in of Sanford, where the shooting took place, are not revealing details of the investigation. Late Friday night, after weeks of pressure, the police played the 911 calls in the case for the family and gave copies to the news media. On the recordings, one shot, an apparent warning or miss, is heard, followed by a voice begging or pleading, and a cry. A second shot is then heard, and the pleading stops.
''It is so clear that this was a 17-year-old boy pleading for his life, and someone shot him in cold blood,'' said Natalie Jackson, one of the Martin family lawyers.
Rather plainly, she took her frameworks from the narrative being offered by the lawyers the Martin family had retained. That also seems to be where she got her factual howlers.
Before she was done with this news report, Alvarez would present a string of factual errors to misled New York Times readers. She continued to adopt the narrative framework which came from the Martin lawyers.
But good lord! In the passages we have highlighted, Alvarez made a truly heinous factual error—an error for which the New York Times never issued a correction. She then quoted Natalie Jackson, one of the lawyers, making a truly heinous claim—a claim which stirred a great deal of anger around the country, the Orlando Sentinel reported three days later.
What was Alvarez’s factual error? In the passage which follows, she reports that two gunshots are heard on the 911 recording. She also starts laying the groundwork for a heinous claim:
“On the recordings, one shot, an apparent warning or miss, is heard, followed by a voice begging or pleading, and a cry. A second shot is then heard, and the pleading stops.”
In that passage, Alvarez says, in her own voice, that two shots can be heard of the tapes. She states this as a fact.
Unfortunately, that factual statement was wrong. This raises an obvious question:
Only one shot was fired that night. Within a matter of days, any dispute about this matter had ended.
Why then did Alvarez report that two shots are heard on the 911 tapes? As she made that erroneous statement, she painted a truly heinous picture of the events which transpired that night. No names were used, but the implication was obvious:
According to Alvarez, Zimmerman had fired one shot, which had missed. After Martin’s voice is heard “begging and pleading,” Zimmerman fired the second shot, “and the pleading stopped.”
Alvarez then quoted Jackson, completing a truly heinous portrait. ''It is so clear that this was a 17-year-old boy pleading for his life, and someone shot him in cold blood,” Jackson said in a deeply heinous act.
Three days later, the Sentinel reported the wave of anger which swept the country because of this lurid portrait. We return to our previous question:
In fact, there was only one gunshot that night. Why did Alvarez say, in her own voice, that two shots could be heard on the 911 recordings? Be sure to note an important fact:
According to Alvarez’s report, she herself hadn’t actually heard the 911 tapes which the police had played “for the family.” On what basis did Alvarez say that two shots are “heard” on those tapes?
Presumably, the answer comes from the Orlando Sentinel, a much more professional newspaper than the perpetually runaway Times. On that same March 17, the Sentinel also reported that police had played those tapes for the Martin family.
One difference! At the Orlando paper, two reporters and their editor produced a basically competent news report. According to the Nexis archive, this is what Rene Stutzman and Bianca Prieto wrote at the start of a front-page report (for links, see below):
STUTZMAN (3/17/12): The family of Trayvon Martin spent hours Friday night with police, listening to the eight 911 calls made the night the 17-year-old was shot and killed by a neighborhood crime-watch volunteer in Sanford.Before we’re done, we’ll question Stutzman’s judgment on one basic point. But her reporting makes Alvarez look like the yellow journalist and shill she served as that day.
"What you hear on that tape is shocking. It's riveting," Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon's family, said after the group emerged from the meeting with police late Friday.
Police had previously refused to release the calls. The shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, has not been arrested and is not charged with a crime. He claimed the Feb. 26 shooting was in self-defense.
Natalie Jackson, another attorney, said Zimmerman fired a warning shot, then a kill shot.
"You hear a shot, a clear shot, then you hear a 17-year-old boy begging for his life," Jackson said. "Then you hear a second shot."
It was the first time that anyone said two shots were fired that night.
"The last seconds of his life were in absolute fear," Crump said of the 911 calls.
Were two gunshots heard on the tapes? Let’s compare Goofus to Gallant:
Were two gunshots heard on the tapes? Alvarez states that as a fact, in her own voice. Stutzman sources that statement directly to Jackson.
(In an insufficient warning to readers, Stutzman also notes that no one else had ever said there were two gunshots that night.)
Let’s compare combs! In the Orlando paper, a lurid claim was directly attributed, in full, to the heinous Jackson. (In that lurid claim, a warning shot is followed by a murderous “kill shot” as a “boy” begs for his life.)
In the lofty and brilliant New York Times, Alvarez simply accepted that lurid story as accurate! She repeated chunks of Jackson’s (inaccurate) tale in her own gullible voice.
As we’ve noted, the rest of Alvarez’s report was larded with factual errors. A few of those errors still form the basis for the way the events of that night are conventionally described.
But the first five paragraphs of that report are truly heinous journalism. And as time passed, things got worse at the Times.
Three days later, the pitiful little Orlando Sentinel corrected the record about those alleged gunshots, as we will show you tomorrow. They asked attorneys Jackson and Crump why they had made their false statements.
(For the only time in recorded history, the pair “were not available for comment.”)
The Sentinel corrected the record about the number of gunshots. To this day, the perpetually heinous New York Times has never made that correction.
If you read that Times report today, you still will find no correction appended concerning the number of gunshots. But then, this sort of willful misconduct is hardly new for the Times.
The whole era of “Whitewater” pseudo-scandals began with lurid, uncorrected groaners on the front page of the Times. The subsequent wars against Candidate Gore were largely invented and fueled by the Times—by Frank Rich, by Maureen Dowd, by Seelye and Bruni and a cast of supporters.
The Times has long been a heinous newspaper. Why won’t your favorite stars say so? Why is misconduct of this type perpetually deemed OK?
Tomorrow: The Sentinel corrects the record. Goofus gazes away.
The Sentinel told it two different ways: According to the Nexis archive, the Sentinel told the story two ways on March 17, 2012.
We have cited the Stutzman/Prieto report which appeared in the paper’s early editions. In that same day’s later editions, a revised report directly stated that two shots could be heard on the tapes, just as Alvarez did.
We could offer a horrible speculation as to why the Sentinel flipped on this matter, making its report less accurate in the process. Our speculation would involve the perpetual desire of regional editors to get in line with the mighty and brilliant Times.
Whatever! For a reprint of the Sentinel’s early report, click this. To review the later, erroneous version, just click here.
One basic matter of judgment: Should Stutzman have reported Jackson’s claims in the way she did in that initial report?
Ideally, she should have been more careful. She should have included many more warnings about the fact that Jackson’s (false) report about the number of gunshots couldn’t be corroborated or confirmed.
In fairness, all of Jackson’s lurid claims were directly attributed to their source. Beyond that, Stutzman even included a bit of a warning—no one had ever said a word about two gunshots before.
Still, Jackson was alleging an act of cold-blooded murder, culminating in a “kill shot” as a boy begged for his life. According to the Sentinel’s March 20 report, people all over the country became enraged after reading Jackson’s account.
Those people had been baldly misled by the latest fake fact. The Sentinel pushed back against Jackson's conduct. As always, the Times did not.