Capehart checks the facts: Was last night’s verdict the correct verdict?
We would be inclined to say yes. To gain a conviction on murder or manslaughter, the prosecution had to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that George Zimmerman wasn’t engaged in self-defense when he shot Trayvon Martin.
Given the nature of the incident, given the state of the evidence, that was quite hard to prove.
Like you, we don’t know what actually happened when Zimmerman and Martin encountered each other that night. Many scenarios can be imagined, at least among those who are honest.
But that is precisely the problem. The prosecution had to prove one major scenario. According to the jury, they didn’t do it.
That said, let’s discuss the way the press corps handled this high-profile case. More specifically, let’s discuss one of the facts the press corps helped invent.
Last Sunday, the analysts almost came out of their chairs in surprise. Finally! The Washington Post was finally going to fact-check the Zimmerman trial!
The assignment had gone to Jonathan Capehart. He fact-checked this long-running topic as part of the paper’s weekly “Five Myths” feature.
The feature appears in the paper’s Outlook section each week. Last Sunday, the headline said, “Five myths about the killing of Trayvon Martin.”
Finally! At long last, Capehart was going to debunk “five myths” about this high-profile matter! But alas! The analysts’ faces fell when they reviewed Capehart’s work.
Can we talk? Your upper-end “press corps” is almost completely incompetent. Consider Capehart’s bungled treatment of his very first myth:
“1. On the night of the shooting, the police ordered Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle.”
Was Zimmerman told to stay in his car by the police dispatcher? Actually, no—he was not. To see the New York Times explain the sequence in detail, just review this detailed report from April 2012.
Zimmerman was never told to stay in his car. He was already out of his car, following Martin, when the exchange in question occurred.
Zimmerman was never told to stay in his car. But so what? This is one of the best-known “facts” about the death of Martin. Zimmerman was told to stay in his car! The damning claim is made night after night. All well-trained pundits repeat it.
On cable, this damning claim was repeated all through the three-week trial. It will be repeated, night after night, during the pundit discussions which will occur this week.
The claim has been repeated, day after day, in comment threads at major newspapers. The claim appeared in a news report in the New York Times last week.
(Early editions only! The erroneous claim was dropped from later editions.)
No, Virginia! George Zimmerman was never told to stay in his car! As many publications explained last year, the exchange in question came later, when he was already out of his car.
You may think that distinction is trivial. But if it’s facts we care about, a bogus claim has been repeated again and again.
If the claim in question is false, why have so many people made it? Sadly, this is standard procedure when a witch trial begins:
Partisans start inventing false facts to make the case against the witch stronger. Pundits and journalists stampede to repeat the false facts.
Often, it is “journalists” who invented the false claims in the first place. No one invents fake facts more often than upper-end “journalists” do.
George Zimmerman was never told to stay in his car! Any newspaper worth its salt would have made a point of correcting this bogus claim long ago.
And then, last Sunday, sure enough! Jonathan Capehart identified this as the first of his “five myths!” But Capehart is almost completely incompetent. When he tried to debunk that myth, this is what he wrote:
CAPEHART (7/7/13): 1. On the night of the shooting, the police ordered Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle.Capehart is almost completely incompetent. When he tried to debunk that myth, he only noted that Noffke’s comment to Zimmerman can’t be viewed as an “order.”
“Are you following him?” the operator for the Sanford police’s non-emergency line asks Zimmerman. “Yeah,” he says. The dispatcher on the phone tells him: “We don’t need you to do that.”
Who the aggressor was that fateful night is the central—and most unanswerable—question of the case. Those who fault Zimmerman have latched on to this back-and-forth with Sean Noffke, the operator, as proof that Zimmerman defied a direct police order.
Not so. Noffke testified on the first day of the jury trial that it is dispatchers’ policy not to give orders to callers. “We’re directly liable if we give a direct order,” he explained. “We always try to give general basic . . . not commands, just suggestions.” So, “We don’t need you to do that” is different than a more direct “Don’t do that.”
He left in place—indeed, reinforced—the notion that Noffke “suggested” that Zimmerman stay in his car.
Capehart has written about this case again and again. To all appearances, he still didn’t know that Noffke’s “suggestion” occurred after Zimmerman left his car. He did correct one misconception. But he left the larger, more dominant misconception in place.
In what other profession are high-ranking players so routinely incompetent? In what other profession are high-ranking players so indolent?
As this discussion boiled in the past month, the New York Times never tried to address that familiar false claim: George Zimmerman was told to stay in his car. When the Washington Post did address it, Capehart, who’s almost completely incompetent, left the perception in place.
Capehart didn’t do much better with several other myths. The second “myth” he debunked was this:
“2. Martin broke Zimmerman’s nose.”
How did Capehart debunk that alleged myth? By reporting that it was only likely that Zimmerman’s nose was broken! Meanwhile, this was Capehart’s third alleged myth:
“3. A widely circulated photograph of Martin wearing a Hollister T-shirt shows him much younger than he was the night he died.”
How did Capehart debunk that myth? He reports that attorney Benjamin Crump told him that the photo was taken in August 2011, when Martin was 16 years old.
This may be true, of course. But Crump has made several inaccurate statements in the course of this episode.
It was Crump who told the world, incorrectly, that Rachel Jeantel was 16—and that she was Martin’s girlfriend. But so what? On the basis of this single partisan source, Capehart was willing to say that he had debunked a third myth.
During Watergate, the Washington Post became famous for demanding two sources. There is no sign that Capehart tried to double-check Crump’s assertion.
Capehart is almost completely incompetent. In fairness, this doesn’t distinguish him from the rest of his guild.