Part 1—The color refers to the journalism: On Sunday, July 14, public editor Margaret Sullivan gave the New York Times high marks for its coverage of the Zimmerman trial.
She briefly discussed the way the Times covered the case last year, when the story rose to national prominence.
As we’ve noted on several occasions, this public editor has become a bit of a cheerleader for her famous employer. This was her general assessment of the Times’ recent trial coverage:
SULLIVAN (7/14/13): While hardly going the way of CNN's near total obsession, :The Times gave the Zimmerman trial a great deal of daily attention, including frequently updated courtroom coverage on the Web.In Sullivan’s view, coverage of the trial was solid, with skillful analysis work. For what it’s worth, we disagree with her view of that Alvarez piece, for reasons we will discuss by the end of the week.
The Zimmerman trial coverage was solid. But foremost, The Times has showed its trademark strength with in-depth, enterprising pieces exploring the broader issues of this shooting and its aftermath.
Last week, for example, Lizette Alvarez wrote skillfully about the racial issues that had emerged, noting that ''race lingers awkwardly on the sidelines, scarcely mentioned but impossible to ignore.'' That article appeared on the front page, the first during the trial to do so.
To Sullivan, the trial coverage was solid. As she continued, you gave her assessment of the Times’ performance early last year, when the death of Trayvon Martin became a national story:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): In the first weeks after Mr. Martin was killed, on Feb. 26, 2012, The Times lagged behind, seeming not to recognize the broader implications and the way the teenager's death had captured public interest. But on April 2 it published an exhaustive and well-written account by four reporters that started on the front page and filled two full pages inside. It explored the polarizing effect of the shooting.Again, we’ll disagree. The Times published its first news report about the killing of Martin on March 17, 2012. On that same day, Charles Blow published the first of his columns about the case. (Other columns by Blow appeared on March 26, April 7 and April 14.)
Soon after that, a front-page piece by Serge Kovaleski investigated the police missteps after the shooting. (Some critics of The Times believe its motto should not be ''All the News That's Fit to Print'' but rather ''More, Later.'')
Given its role as a national paper, we wouldn’t say that the New York Times was notably late to the story. And trust us: It’s clear that the Times “recognized the broader implications” from its first day on the case.
Alas! The Times’ real failure surfaced, egregiously, in that first news report. Sullivan didn’t mention this problem as she looked back on the Times’ overall performance.
Somehow, Sullivan managed to see no evil, even in the face of some work which was outrageously misshapen. Did we mention the fact that this public editor tends to lead cheers for the Times?
As she continued last Sunday’s assessment, Sullivan turned again to her newspaper’s coverage of the trial itself—and at this point, real insight appeared. Sullivan quoted an editor, Charles Strum, who offered accurate assessments about the challenges posed by this high-profile topic:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): Given the enormous overload of coverage elsewhere, The Times tried to provide something distinctive. Charles Strum, the deputy national editor handling the story, told me that his aim had been ''to bring more light than heat, because, over all, this is a situation with more heat than light.'' While editing articles in the New York office—most of them written by Ms. Alvarez, the Miami bureau chief—he spent his days wearing headphones so that he could listen to live streaming of the trial.Strum's observations were right. Press coverage of the Zimmerman trial did have to deal with a lot of heat and perhaps a bit less light. There has been “a lot of misinformation” surrounding this high-profile case.
''There are a lot of accusations, a lot of misinformation and a lot of conspiracy theorizing,'' he said.
Accusations have been widespread, against a range of persons. (Police chief fired! Jurors in hiding!) Conspiracy theories have appeared, if only in comment threads. (George Zimmerman broke his own nose, hurling himself at the sidewalk!)
Strum was right in his observations. Sullivan seemed to think that the Times had lived up to his sensible journalistic concerns. But in the process of praising the Times, Sullivan failed to note a very important fact:
Much of the misinformation which still defines this case entered the journalistic bloodstream through the New York Times! That misinformation dominated the paper’s early reporting, when the Times engaged in some truly egregious misconduct.
This newspaper’s early news reports generated much more heat than light about this deeply unfortunate case. And it’s obvious where reporters were getting their heat, and their misinformation.
Again and again, those bogus facts seem to have come from the Martin family and especially from their attorneys. In the case of the New York Times’ first news report, that includes one false claim so egregious that it ought to shock the conscience.
Let’s repeat that:
The New York Times’ early reporting ought to shock the conscience. That said, the chances are very slight that it will. Meanwhile, Sullivan skipped this egregious misconduct as she issued her typical words of praise for the work of her famous employer.
Your press corps has worked this way for decades, especially at the Times. As we’ll note again later on in the week, all good career liberal players agree not to notice this fact.
All week, we’ll review the New York Times’ early reporting—reporting which included some truly egregious misstatements. We’ll even be able to answer a basic question:
With respect to this high-profile national story, where did the basic parts of the press corps’ Standard Story come from? More specifically, what was the source of the New York Times’ astounding array of misinformation? What was the source of the New York Times' heat-seeking frameworks and language?
The answer to those questions is obvious. Something else is obvious too. Right from its very first news report, the Times engaged in egregious misconduct in its reporting of this case. Its journalistic malpractice should shock the conscience, but almost surely it won’t.
Two shots were fired in a yellow wood! Or so the New York Times reported. The Times attached a lurid suggestion to its egregious false fact.
The color refers to the journalism. But where did that false fact come from?
Tomorrow: For a long list of errors, just click this. But where did those “errors” come from?