Part 4—At the Times, just one correction: As the story began to go national, the Associated Press displayed a bit of good journalistic judgment.
On March 16, 2012, Trayvon Martin’s family was allowed to hear the recordings of the 911 calls to Sanford police on the night their son was killed. Later, the Sanford police released the recordings to the public.
When this happened, the New York Times displayed some astounding bad judgment. Lawyers for the Martin family were saying, incorrectly, that two shots could be heard on the tapes. Based upon that erroneous claim, the lawyers were telling a lurid tale of what had happened that evening—a false story they had invented.
This lurid story was untrue. But the New York Times, in a startling bit of throwback behavior, rushed the false tale into print.
This is the start of the great newspaper’s first report about the killing. The highlighted claims are false:
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.“Little is clear about the shooting,” Lizette Alvarez wrote.
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.
But so what? By her fifth paragraph, she was letting attorney Natalie Jackson tell a lurid, inaccurate tale, with Jackson stressing how “clear” it was that that her lurid story was accurate.
Jackson’s story wasn’t accurate. Only one shot had been fired that night. This debunked the rest of that lurid story, which Jackson said was “so clear.”
Alvarez printed Jackson's tale—and in this heinous act, the New York Times engaged in come very familiar conduct. All through American history, this kind of pseudo-reporting has occurred, with lurid inventions of fact aimed at black suspects and defendants.
In this case, the old pattern persisted with a new target. The Times had engaged in the same old behavior, but now it was presenting fake facts to say that a lurid crime had been committed against a black victim.
The New York Times showed astounding bad judgment this day. To a somewhat lesser extent, so did the Orlando Sentinel, which highlighted Jackson’s lurid false tale, then aggressively corrected it three days later.
The Associated Press showed vastly better judgment. Late on March 16, the AP moved two full news reports about the 911 recordings.
Neither report made the false assertion that two shots could be heard on the tapes. Beyond that, the AP didn’t publish the lurid, erroneous claims being promulgated by Jackson and Benjamin Crump, the Martin attorneys.
The AP showed very good judgment. Indeed, in its second, slightly longer report, the AP seemed to challenge the spreading claim that two shots could be heard on the tapes.
Here’s how Mike Schneider’s second report began, headline included:
SCHNEIDER (3/16/12): Family of slain black Fla. teen hear 911 callsThis second report is heavily tilted toward the idea that “an injustice had been done with no one arrested;” toward the idea that the Sanford police were misbehaving in various ways; toward the idea that “there's a large possibility that [the killing] is a racist act.”
After listening to recordings of 911 calls Friday night, the family of a black teenager fatally shot by a white neighborhood watch volunteer say they're more convinced than ever that the shooter should be charged.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the family, told reporters outside Sanford City Hall that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's parents both broke down and cried as they listened to the recordings.
"They are completely devastated, and they are in unbelievable grief," Crump said.
Police agreed to release the recordings earlier that afternoon. Martin's parents previously sued to have the recordings released. A hearing for the case was scheduled for Monday.
Martin was fatally shot last month as he returned to a Sanford home during a visit from Miami.
Officials released a total of seven 911 calls. All of the callers described a single shot.
In that sense, this second report by Schneider tilted heavily toward the claims being made by Jackson and Crump. In our view, Schneider’s first report was much more disciplined and judicious.
That said, Schneider showed extremely good judgment in two major ways. He never reported the inaccurate claim that two shots can be heard on the tape. And he didn’t report the heinous, false claims which were being promulgated by Jackson and Crump.
Indeed, in this second news report, the AP seemed to be subtly rebutting the claim that two shots could be heard on the tape. “All of the callers described a single shot,” Schneider explicitly reported, early in his report.
Schneider was right about that. But so what? Despite that fact, the New York Times was inaccurately telling its readers that two shots could be head on the tape.
This false report, and the lurid story it fueled, produced a wave of anger across the country, the Orlando Sentinel later reported.
Can we talk? This is precisely the way the American press had traditionally fueled our lynch mobs. On this occasion, it was attorneys Jackson and Crump who were spreading lurid false tales, provoking waves of anger among those who had been misinformed.
The New York Times raced to repeat their lurid false claims, provoking anger around the country. Showing vastly better judgment, the Associated Press refused.
The start of that New York Times report should go straight to the Smithsonian. That said, the Times report was adorned with other factual misstatements, one of which defines the way this story is being told even today.
Alvarez seemed to be taking her frameworks, and her factual claims, straight from the Martin lawyers. In her opening paragraph, she strongly pushed the idea that race lay at the heart of the case. She introduced the (irrelevant) fact that Martin had purchased some Skittles that night.
She stressed the claim by ear-witness Mary Cutcher that “she heard Trayvon pleading” that night, and that the police conducted a “cursory” investigation. (Cutcher’s claims turned out to be so compromised that the prosecution didn’t put her on the stand during the trial.)
Those were issues of framework and emphasis. But by paragraph 4, Alvarez was stating her first inaccurate “fact.” At least three more basic factual misstatements would follow.
Second misstatement: According to Alvarez, this is what happened when Zimmerman called police that night: “The dispatcher told him to stay in his car and said the police would be on the way. But Mr. Zimmerman got out.”
That claim was being advanced by the Martin lawyers—and the claim was false. But alas! This false claim still plays a central part in the way this story is told.
Third misstatement: At one point, Alvarez quoted Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s father. Understandably, Martin was angry and distraught about his son’s death. But Alvarez quoted him making another false statement:
“Everybody is outraged...For him to be murdered by someone who weighs more than 100 pounds [more] than him, more than 10 years older than him, this is an outrage.”
On cable, the claim that Zimmerman outweighed Martin by 100 pounds became a standard part of the story. (In some press reports, the alleged weight difference crept up to 110 pounds.)
The claim was a vast exaggeration. Though Martin was taller, Zimmerman did outweigh Martin that night—though at most, by 46 pounds.
Fourth misstatement: Alvarez made another misstatement this day—and the New York Times even corrected it, three weeks later, in strangely belated fashion. This formal correction was appended to Alvarez’s report, as you can see on-line:
NEW YORK TIMES (4/6/12): This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:In her initial report, Alvarez reported that Zimmerman had made 46 calls to the Sanford police over the previous 14 months. This inaccurate fact was routinely used to paint Zimmerman as a crime-obsessed nut.
Correction: April 6, 2012
An article on March 17 about appeals for a Department of Justice investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman misstated the time period in which Mr. Zimmerman made 46 calls to 911. The calls were made over the course of about eight years, not over 14 months. The error was repeated in a front-page article on March 21 about Florida’s self-defense law known as Stand Your Ground.
In fact, the 46 calls had been made over a span dating to August 2004. In the previous 14 months, Zimmerman had made twelve calls to the Sanford police. (That includes the two calls he made on the night of the killing.)
This first news report in the New York Times contained at least four factual errors, one of which is still repeated everywhere bullshit is sold. It also stressed several irrelevant facts, and it stressed the racial framework being advanced by Crump and Jackson.
Can we talk? Alvarez seems to have taken dictation from the lawyers this day. Her most appalling bit of misjudgment involved the promulgation of the false claim that two shots were fired that night, accompanied by the lurid false tale which stirred anger around the country.
The American press has always behaved this way toward despised targets. In this case, the New York Times has never even bothered to issue a formal correction of the false statement that two shots can be heard on the tapes. On-line, that false statement stands uncorrected to this very day in in this news report.
Perhaps more significantly, the Times never alerted its readers to a significant fact: Attorneys Jackson and Crump had promulgated a heinous false story about what occurred that night.
As the year proceeded, Jackson and Crump would make other false claims, as we’ll note tomorrow. Times readers weren’t told or warned about these unreliable sources. Jackson and Crump were allowed to proceed, as has been the common practice with people who stir great anger against approved social targets.
Magisterially, the New York Times agreed to correct one false fact.
The Times corrected one false fact, its statement about the 46 phone calls. Therein lies a remarkable story, a story which extends right up to the related false claim advanced last week by Professor Cobb on our highly lauded and magisterial PBS NewsHour.
The professor’s false claim was made last week. If you get your bullshit from MSNBC, you head variants of the false claim on a wide range of your favorite “news” programs.
As we’ve told you, fake facts never die. Tomorrow, the long, winding road to the NewsHour.
Tomorrow: The 46 calls! A fake fact gets reworked.