Part 5—The history of Professor Cobb's fake fact: The Zimmerman verdict was rendered on Saturday evening, July 13.
Two nights later, America’s most discerning citizens gathered before their TV machines. They watched the PBS NewsHour, their country’s most erudite news program.
Not for them the screeching and yelling found on those cable news channels! But uh-oh! Those discerning citizens were soon told this by one of their nation’s professors:
WOODRUFF (7/15/13): Well, to you, Jelani Cobb, on that point about whether race was clearly a part of this trial. We know the judge said at the outset that the attorneys were not to use the term racial profiling.First, the professor cited another case, without quite explaining the connection to the Zimmerman matter. He then engaged in a bit of speculation about what would have happened if.
COBB: Right. If I can just respond to Carol Swain’s previous point about this being racialized, as opposed to race actually being an integral element of it from the beginning. One, there is the case of Marissa Alexander, which some people may be familiar with, who was in a situation where—a domestic violence situation, she fired a warning shot and has been sentenced to 20 years, despite the fact that she deployed a stand your ground defense.
And so—also, had this been two white men or two black men, it’s doubtful that it would have required 44 days before someone was actually investigated or there were charges brought. And, so, no we can’t escape—and finally, the fact of the matter is, Mr. Zimmerman had called the police 46 times in the previous six years, only for African-Americans, only for African-American men.
And so if we just look at who he thought was suspicious, and if this was a kind of arbitrary element of calling, since 20 percent of that population of that subdivision is African-American, what his problem seemed to be was with the presence of African-Americans there, not with the presence of crime, or the incapacity to differentiate between African-Americans and crime.
Finally, the august professor got to “the fact of the matter.” When he did, he recited a fact which is blatantly false.
NewsHour viewers had no way of knowing. But they had been grossly misinformed about this case again.
(Later in the segment, the professor also said this: “The fact of the matter is, whatever the conflict was, it was precipitated by Mr. Zimmerman. The police—the dispatcher told him not to get out of his vehicle. He proceeded to get out of his vehicle.” That statement, while highly familiar, was also false.)
In the passage we have highlighted, Professor Cobb was reciting one of the many fake facts which came to the American public as they tried to assess this high-profile case. Because no, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea—despite what you have routinely been told, Zimmerman didn’t make 46 phone calls to police “only for African-Americans, only for African-American men.”
What did Zimmerman call about? On March 22 of last year, a police department account of those 46 calls was made public. On March 22, 2012, that full list was published here, by The Daily Beast.
As far as we know, that is the best existing record of what those 46 phone calls concerned. And despite what people like Cobb have told you, those 46 phone calls weren’t made “only for African-Americans, only for African-American men.”
The professor's fact is pleasing. But the fact is false.
What did those 46 phone calls concern? Some of those phone calls were made about whites and/or Hispanics. Some of those phone calls were made about stray dogs. Some of those calls were about garage doors which were standing open, an invitation to burglars.
Several of the 46 calls reported fire alarms or motion alarms which had gone off. Several calls concerned potholes.
From the data as released, there is no way to know exactly how many of the calls concerned black males. Some of the calls concerned behavior by people whose race or ethnicity isn’t recorded.
But in those data as they exist, exactly seven of the 46 calls are known to have involved black people. That includes the two calls Zimmerman made concerning Trayvon Martin on the fateful evening when this story began.
Before that night, only five of the calls can be said to involve black people, at least according to that public record. Three calls can be said to involve white people. One call can be said to involve Hispanics.
Quite a few of the 46 calls involved no people at all.
(Two of the five previous calls involving black people occurred in the fall of 2011. They seem to have led to the arrest of Emmanuel Burgess, who had staged several burglaries and a home invasion in the neighborhood. For Jeralyn Merritt's account of those calls, click here.)
How in the world did Professor Cobb get that fake fact in his head? What led him to repeat the fake fact on our most upstanding news show?
Why did no one on the program speak up to correct his fake fact? Why were so many upstanding citizens misinformed again?
You're asking excellent questions! They take us back to the one false fact the New York Times deigned to correct from its initial, heinous news report about the killing of Trayvon Martin.
That first news report, by Lizette Alvarez, was genuinely heinous. Instantly, she stated a false fact—two shots were fired that fateful night. She then quoted Natalie Jackson, a Martin family lawyer, telling a lurid, false tale.
The false claim that two shots were fired wasn’t the only factual error in that first New York Times report. But it was the only error for which the Times ever issued a formal correction.
Incredibly, the Times never corrected the bogus claim that two shots can be heard on the 911 tapes. Eventually, though, the magisterial Gotham newspaper managed somehow to write this:
THE NEW YORK TIMES (4/6/12): CorrectionsIn that initial March 17 report, Alvarez reported that the 46 calls were made over a 14-month period. By March 22, it was clear that this time span was wrong. Exhibiting its standard “complacencies of the peignoir,” the Times lazily corrected this one mistake a bit more than two weeks later.
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.
The 46 phone calls had been cited in that first news report. They were still part of the story on The NewsHour last week, except the claim had now been changed, from one fake fact to another!
Initially, the 46 calls were said to have been made over a 14-month period. On cable, this was used to show the world that Zimmerman was a crime-obsessed nut.
Eventually, it became clear that this first fake fact was wrong. But as we’ve told you, in our culture, fake facts never die!
And so, it came to pass. On April 10, 2012, the first version of this fake fact began to morph into the second.
On that evening, Martin attorney Benjamin Crump appeared on MSNBC and Fox. During the 6 PM hour, he made a new claim as he spoke with Al Sharpton:
SHARPTON (4/10/12): Let me ask you, Mr. Crump, what does this do to what we have heard about Mr. Zimmerman’s side of story from his father and his lawyers? Here’s a guy that told different sides of the story, who all of a sudden just quits talking to his lawyers, starts calling prosecutors, starts calling TV hosts. I mean, does that speak a lot to how his story may or may not have a lot of credibility? I mean, wouldn’t the prosecutor have to look at the value of his word now?As best we can tell, this is the moment when the first fake fact about those phone calls began morphing into the second.
CRUMP: I think Reverend Sharpton, you are absolutely right. They should look at everything. They should look at all of the 911 calls he made before Trayvon Martin’s call, over 46 calls. And about 75 percent of them were dealing with African-American males as being suspicious. Then you take this unpredictable irrational conduct into play, and you want to look at all of that when you look at the totality of the evidence.
Previously, the fake fact concerned the alleged 14-month time span. Now, attorney Crump advanced a new claim about the 46 calls; he said that 75 percent of the calls dealt with African-American males. This new alleged fact was used to suggest that Zimmerman was a bit of a race man.
Two hours later, Crump went on The O’Reilly Factor. He spoke with guest host Laura Ingraham:
INGRAHAM (4/10/12): Given what you've heard about his own background, his own life story, do you think that this man is a racist?Is there any possibility that this new claim was accurate? Could there be some data source which establishes this claim as an actual fact?
CRUMP: I don't know if he's a racist or not. But I do believe he racially profiled Trayvon Martin that night. For him, saying he was suspicious and for him getting out of that car, it just doesn't add up. But you also have to look at all the other calls he made. He made 46 calls to 911, and over 75 percent of those calls were about young African-Americans.
Given the number of the 46 calls which concerned pot holes, fire alarms, stray dogs and white folk, that seems highly unlikely. Using Nexis, we find no news org which ever reported any such fact. That includes the major Florida papers which followed this case most closely.
At any rate, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with murder just one day after Crump's remarks. People stopped discussing the 46 calls as the case dropped out of sight.
We can’t tell you how we got from there to the new fake fact, the one the professor offered on the July 15 NewsHour. But that claim was plainly bogus.
Even Crump had only claimed that 75 percent of the calls concerned blacks. By the time our nation’s finest citizens watched our most respectable news show, that figure had managed to creep all the way to 100 percent!
And OOG! The professor had said the same thing on CNN just a few hours earlier! In that case, host Jake Tapper looked on as Professor Cobb debated another guest:
COBB (7/15/13): The other point that we should bear in mind, David [Webb], is that Mr. Zimmerman made 46 phone calls to the police in the preceding six years only to African-Americans, only to African-Americans. He had called the police on no one else. And prior to this, when he did the initial interview in the precinct house, they asked him, why did he pursue against the advice of the police? He said because, "They always get away."Ironic! The professor was using a new fake fact to hunt down his own chosen victim!
Who gets away? A person who is going home with snacks?
WEBB: He didn't say “blacks” always get away. He said “they” and the—
COBB: However, the only people who were suspicious were African-Americans.
Professor Cobb was hardly alone in stating the new fake fact. That same day, one of the Martin family attorneys stated the fake fact on Hardball.
Jasmine Rand spoke with Hardball’s perpetually hapless host. She explained why the federal government needs to stage a new criminal trial alleging civil rights violations:
MATTHEWS (7/15/13): Well, what would be the story you would tell a federal jury? What story would you say? What would be your scenario of what happened?Rand returned to the initial false claim about the “short time period.” But she also used the new fake fact!
RAND: I think that George Zimmerman placed 46 calls throughout a short period of time reporting black men as suspicious in the neighborhood. He got out of that car saying these "F’ing A-holes always get away."
RAND: He followed Trayvon Martin with a loaded gun and that loaded gun, when he pulled the trigger, the thing that pulled the trigger was his hate in his heart for African-American people.
Zimmerman made 46 calls about black men! This proved he had hate in his heart!
Innocent people believe these fake facts, especially when they hear them repeated again and again on TV programs they trust. That said, people watching MSNBC had plenty of chances in recent weeks to hear this newest fake fact. On June 24, it made its debut on the Chris Hayes show as the Zimmerman trial was starting.
One of Hayes’ guests, Maya Wiley, stated the new fake fact to The Puppy. As his channel's scripting required, he had of course been blown away by the prosecution’s greatness:
HAYES (6/24/13): That’s what I thought was so brilliant and effective of the prosecution’s opening line, opening with that line, the reminder of the line from the tapes, infamously, about the judgment that emanated in that moment, in that one moment by George Zimmerman—The Puppy worried about the jury's racial consciousness. As he did, one of his guests stated a blatantly false and “racialized” fake fact.
WILEY: As a racialized judgment. It wasn’t just the “blanking punks” and— George Zimmerman is a man who called the Sanford Police Department 46 times to say there was some scary black person in the neighborhood. So there’s also—
HAYES: The question here, I think, also is it goes to how the jury is going to process all this. And there is, in jury selection, we know, tremendous racial effects in how, in jury composition, in how juries process this. Particularly because our criminal law justice system is intensely racialized and this case has been from the moment an intensely racialized case.
In the course of the trial, Wiley stated this fake fact on three different MSNBC programs. As a courtesy, we will assume that she even thought it was accurate.
Cobb may have thought it was accurate too! Since when do professors fact-check? At any rate, on July 13, Wiley victimized Melissa Harris-Perry with the inaccurate claim:
WILEY (7/13/13): There are two elements to this. One is stereotypes, which we’re talking about, right? The stereotype of the black kid with a hoodie means he must be dangerous, he must be a criminal. Oh, and I don’t know him and he does not live here, right? The stranger phenomenon.We’re sorry, but that isn’t true, despite what your lizard says.
But the second is that we don’t—we are generally afraid of bad things happening. Because what the science shows—and George Zimmerman has actually expressed this, both of these elements, when he has described what happened. He was generally afraid of crime, and we know he called the police 46 times over a period of six years, always reporting a black man in his neighborhood.
One day later, Steve Kornacki just sat there and took it. This instance was especially gross because of the presence of Marc Morial, a highly respected senior figure, the current president of the National Urban League.
We’ll drop a bit of the crosstalk. Don’t confuse a possible civil lawsuit (for monetary damages) with a possible federal civil rights prosecution:
KORNACKI (7/14/13): In the case of, you know, George Zimmerman, it strikes me this did not get a lot of play in the trial, but I know the prosecutors introduced as part of the evidence five previous 911 calls that he had made.“I’m not talking about the evidence,” Wiley wonderfully said.
WILEY: 46! 46 calls in a six-year period from George Zimmerman claiming a scary black person.
KORNACKI: This is right. And it was—only five were admitted as evidence in the trial.
MORIAL: We’ve seen—
WILEY: But my point is, for brain science—46 calls! I’m not talking about the evidence. I’m talking about George Zimmerman’s implicit bias. 46 calls is a lot of evidence on a social science level.
MORIAL: Oh, sure.
SEEMA IYER: But those calls can be used as, you know, a foundation for the DOJ suit and the other—
KORNACKI: The other thing is, I was asking Ben Crump about this earlier, but the civil—the rules of evidence, if this goes to a civil trial, are more expansive, right? So—
MORIAL: The standard of proof, which is different, which is the significant thing. Not only the rules of evidence, but the standard of proof in a criminal case is obviously much—all elements of the crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, it’s by preponderance of the evidence. It’s a very different proceeding. And the thing you mentioned, the 911 calls, certainly in a civil case, and I think with an intensive competent investigation by the Department of Justice, I feel that George Zimmerman can be brought up on federal criminal civil rights charges and potentially hate crimes charges.
Wiley stated the new fake fact. Before long, Morial was declaring that those 46 calls, all of them about scary black people, could drive federal criminal civil rights charges and potentially hate crimes charges!
Does that include the calls about pot holes? Wiley’s fact was blatantly false, but it was doing big damage.
Morial is a very senior figure, and he’s highly respected. One night later, a ranking professor misinformed Woodruff’s viewers—and things got worse after that!
On July 18, Michel Martin interviewed a highly respected figure on NPR, a highly respected news org. She spoke with John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the new president of Morehouse College.
In our experience, Martin is more inclined than most to correct or challenge errors of fact. In this case, President Wilson’s misstatement managed to walk on by:
MARTIN (7/18/13): Martin Luther King Jr. being an alumnus of Morehouse College. This trial, this whole episode, there are those who would argue that race was not a part of it, but clearly very many other people do believe that race is a part of it, particularly the image of young black men. And because you are in the business of serving and educating, I just wonder if you have some thoughts about that. I mean, clearly there are people who believe that if Trayvon Martin had presented himself in a different way, that this would not have happened. If he had reacted in a different way, this would not have happened. Do you have thoughts about that?Oof. Dr. King’s sacred name was invoked. Then we got our newest fake fact, along with our serving of Skittles.
WILSON: He was minding his business. Trayvon was minding his business, headed home. An assumption was made that he was trouble, all right? It is very clear, because Zimmerman had apparently called the police some 46 times, and every single time he was calling about a young African-American male that he saw. It is very clear that race has something to do with this.
I think it's almost absurd to suggest that race had nothing to do with it. It is inconceivable, almost, that he would have called about a young white male, or even a young Hispanic male, walking with Skittles and iced tea, walking home. He would not have made the same assumption about being up to no good. So that assumption is pretty key here, and race had everything to do with that assumption.
God bless the children and God bless the adults exposed to relentless false facts! As we've told you for so many years, we live in a culture which runs on fake facts.
We have written about this remarkable matter for many years now. And one fact is plain above all:
Absolutely nobody cares! Paul Krugman won’t complain about this. Kevin Drum won't talk about this; neither will E. J. Dionne. And when our best and our brightest won’t mention this problem, this problem will fester and spread.
George Bush reached the White House thanks to twenty straight months of fake facts delivered by the Whole Group. Even now, the liberal world’s smartest players just keep playing along.
Bill Press is a man we once regarded as a favorite because he didn’t play it that way. Bill’s latest column says this:
PRESS (7/22/13): Zimmerman may not have been guilty of second-degree murder, but he was clearly guilty of manslaughter…The night of Feb. 26, he was told to stay in his car, but he didn’t. He chased Martin down and confronted him, leading to a fight—which, apparently, Zimmerman ended up losing. But that doesn’t necessitate or justify murder.Press knows Zimmerman was guilty of manslaughter thanks to a string of fake facts!
And why did Zimmerman pursue Martin? Not just because he was young. Not just because he was wearing a hoodie. But because he was young, wearing a hoodie—and he was black. According to police records, before confronting Martin, he’d made at least 46 calls to 911, reporting "suspicious" black males.
We’re sorry, but there are no such “police records.” Nor was there any sign in Zimmerman’s phone call that night that he gave a good goddamn about the hoodie Martin was wearing.
That iconic claim was made up, invented out of this air.
Nor is it true that Zimmerman was told to stay in his car. Bill Press has his facts down cold—and by that, we mean his fake facts.
Tomorrow: Ruminations on the culture and cult of the fake fact