WHO NEEDS JOURNALISM: O’Donnell’s new role!


Part 2—Journalist dons a new hat: Watching the press corps assemble the facts is often a troubling experience.

Yesterday, we considered a factual conflict about George Zimmerman’s gun (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/26/12). Today, let’s consider the way the press has reported the facts about Zimmerman’s phone calls.

On February 26, Zimmerman made a call to the Sanford police concerning Trayvon Martin, whom he considered suspicious. This phone call was part of the tragic set of events which ended in Martin’s death.

But this wasn’t Zimmerman’s first such call to the Sanford police. Way back on March 17, Lizette Alvarez reported a background fact in the New York Times:
ALVAREZ (3/17/12): Mr. Zimmerman lives in the predominantly white gated community where the shooting took place. A criminal justice major in college, he often patrolled the streets in his car. In the last 14 months, Mr. Zimmerman had made 46 calls to the police, officials said, reporting everything from alarms and disturbances to reckless driving and, most commonly, a ''suspicious'' person.
Alvarez sourced her fact to the Sanford police. That same day, the Miami Herald reported the same fact. The Orlando Sentinel soon followed suit: According to the Sentinel, Zimmerman “contacted police 46 times in the past 15 months, the [Sanford police] reported.”

Zimmerman had made 46 calls to the Sanford police since the start of 2011. Is that fact accurate? We would guess that it is, but we aren’t entirely sure, in part because we follow the work of other American news orgs.

The upper-end American press corps is a bit like New England weather. If you don’t like the facts, just wait a while:

On March 19, the CNN Wire reported this fact: “According to Sgt. David Morgenstern of the Sanford police, Zimmerman called 911 46 times since 2001” (our emphasis).

On March 22, the Associated Press reported this: “Zimmerman, who was captain of the neighborhood watch and licensed to carry a gun, made 46 calls to police since 2004, according to department records” (our emphasis).

On March 23, the Washington Post repeated that claim in a front-page report: “He called the police department at least 46 times since 2004 to report everything from open garages to suspicious people.”

So it goes when the mainstream press corps assembles the simplest facts. In this instance, everyone agreed on the number of calls—Zimmerman had made 46. But depending on what news org you checked, he had made that number of calls since 2001, 2004 or the start of 2011.

On Sunday, matters got worse. This isn’t a hugely important fact, but in such an emotional matter, almost all facts will be put to good use by folk who have taken a side. On Sunday, Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, offered a version of this fact on Meet the Press, one of the nation’s most famous news programs.

Almost surely, Jealous’ factual claim is wrong. But his factual error was used to advance a certain view of this case:
JEALOUS (3/25/12): George Zimmerman needs to be locked up and no matter how we feel about these laws, this law isn't what gave permission for him to do this. What gave permission was a, a chief and a force in that town that was willing to misconstrue this law to the benefit of somebody who they had talked to 46 times in 56 days. I mean, they should have known something was off with this guy when, when he had called the cops 46 times just this year.
By Sunday, Zimmerman had called the police “46 times in 56 days”—46 times just this year. And this factual claim was being advanced to help us form a view of this case—to help us see that Zimmerman must be a bit of a nut. Alas! David Gregory just sat there and took it as Jealous made his factual error—an error which served a particular outlook. No one challenged Jealous’ statement, as CNN’s Don Lemon had done at the start of the week when this claim was first advanced.

On March 18, Lemon spoke with Goldie Taylor. Like Jealous, she had a point to make:
TAYLOR (3/18/12): It's worth noting that George Zimmerman, since January 1st of this year, has called 911 46 times. In any—

LEMON: I think it was 2011.

TAYLOR: In any jurisdiction, even 46 times in a year, two years, make that five years, that person would have been named a nuisance caller.
Taylor was willing to settle for two years—or even for five! But as she started, she embellished a fact to advance the idea that Zimmerman was a bit of a nut.

In this case, Lemon corrected her error. One week later, Gregory and his all-star panel let Jealous’ misstatement go.

Despite his errors, Jealous has always struck us as a decent, well-intentioned man. (He rushed to criticize Shirley Sherrod after Andrew Breitbart slimed her.) We’ll assume he was acting in good faith when he made his misstatement on Sunday—a misstatement he originally made on March 22 on CNN, with insinuation attached. (On that occasion, Soledad O’Brien didn’t correct him.) That said, does it matter if facts like these are correct? Facts which aren’t all that important?

Presumably, yes—it does matter. But especially in an emotional case, various hustlers, dimwits and clowns will work quite hard to play you, enacting a culture which has ruled cable "news" over the past fifteen years. The facts they state they will often misstate. They’ll fail to state many other facts—the facts which don’t serve their preferred story-line. Perhaps most importantly, they’ll work very hard to keep you from seeing how many facts are unknown.

They do this in service to various gods—but not to the god of journalism. Consider the work of Lawrence O’Donnell on last Wednesday night’s The Last Word.

This was the day of the “million hoodie march,” a demonstration in New York in remembrance of Trayvon Martin. Midway through his program, O’Donnell turned to a pair of guests, each of whom was wearing a hoodie.

(To watch this segment, just click here. We cringed, but only to keep from laughing. Your results may differ.)

Back to O'Donnell's performance: After playing tape of Martin’s parents, he made a bit of a fashion statement. Then, in a truly remarkable statement, he explained his own role:
O’DONNELL (3/21/12): Trayvon Martin’s parents speaking at a rally in New York tonight. With me now, Goldie Taylor, of NBC`s TheGrio.com, who was at that million hoodie rally tonight in New York, and the host of Make It Plain on Sirius XM Radio, Mark Thompson, who will be at the rally tomorrow with Reverend Sharpton in Florida.

Thank you both for joining me tonight.

You know, I had the hoodie on all day. And at about 9:25, as I was heading down here, without even thinking about changing it, I realized, you know what? I feel like a prosecutor tonight. I better dress like a prosecutor. And—and you know, that’s the way I’m feeling about it.

I just want to get your reactions to what you have heard so far, what you heard from Mr. Bonaparte, the city manager. He has the authority to fire this police chief right now tonight, before he goes to bed. He’s—you’ve listened to him. He’s approaching this very carefully.

What do you think, Goldie? More carefully than he has to?
Needless to say, Taylor lit into Bonaparte, the action she had been booked to perform. But consider the remarkable statement O’Donnell made before asking his question:

In a fawning, presumably bogus statement, O’Donnell suggested that he too had planned to wear a hoodie that night, changing his mind around 9:25. (Viewers who simply believed this claim should have their cable cut off.)

Had O’Donnell planned to wear a hoodie? Everything is possible. But there’s little doubt about the meaning of his second remark. According to this loudest of men, he wasn’t doing the work of a journalist this night.

O’Donnell was working as a prosecutor! He said he dressed in a suit and tie so he would look the part.

Question: Should the anchor of an evening “news” show perform the role of a prosecutor? We hadn’t seen a journalist advance such a claim since July 2000. A quick bit of background:

In a typical lynch mob performance, Tim Russert had savaged Candidate Gore for the full hour on Meet the Press. Some of Russert’s facts were wrong—and many of his facts were massaged. Embarrassing trivia were spindled and mutilated, producing prepackaged results.

Result? In the days which followed, the mainstream “press corps” spilled with praise for Russert’s wonderful work (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/00). This is part of what Margaret Carlson said as she mocked Gore and clowned for her brilliant pal, Don Imus:
CARLSON (7/20/00): Russert was a prosecutor. And while people don't like the press...Russert was like a prosecutor, and he did a very good job.
Russert was a prosecutor, she cooed. But was that Russert’s job?

Russert made many mistakes that day—but he spun the hour in the way the mainstream “press” wanted. In the past two weeks, O’Donnell has played the same sorts of games, including his deeply ridiculous effort on last evening’s program.

Tomorrow, we’ll review last night’s work. But O’Donnell’s declaration last week forces us to ask a question: Should O’Donnell work as a prosecutor when he hosts his program each night? Or should he restrict himself to the traditional role of a journalist?

O’Donnell is one of our biggest and loudest fools. He has been so for a very long time. But his statement last Wednesday night raises a question:

In tribal times like these, do we need actual journalism?

Tomorrow: O’Donnell and O’Reilly


  1. "Do we need actual journalism?"

    But, but, but... you mentioned Al Gore again!!!

  2. What? Different people on different cable shows have said different things about the number of times Zimmerman has called 911?

    Oh, the horror!

    1. Yes, Anon -- it doesn't matter.

      It's just a data point that establishes so firmly exactly who Zimmerman is (a paranoiac, a nuisance caller, someone "off"), that it bears repeated mention.

      Why would anyone spoil the fun by pointing out that the clowns have their facts wrong?

      So what if Zimmerman didn't keep his gun, like we kept being told? (He's not barred from getting another gun, so the clowns' "point" about the gun, even though factually wrong, still stands, in some tribal minds.)

      So what if Zimmerman didn't call 911 an insane amount of times? (He's still a psycho, some tribal minds are still certain they know, so the cable clowns' "points" still stand -- though sure, the facts are massaged, wrong.)

      Why must Somerby be such a wet blanket?

    2. Did he call 911, or the police? If it fits our goal, a possibility becomes an obvious, trusted fact. If it is exculpatory, not so much.

    3. Swan, do you actually think that the national attention this case has drawn is because of how many times Zimmerman may or may not have called 911?

      It's a side issue, and a very trivial one at that, that distracts from what the very important issues that should be discussed. But it sure seems to have Somerby's attention.

      I'm kind of reminded of Al Gore's "sighs" during the first debate and how Somerby decried the media attention on that bit of triviality, rather than any serious discussion of the clear policy differences, not the least of which was tax policy, that came up during that debate.

    4. "do you actually think that the national attention this case has drawn is because of how many times Zimmerman may or may not have called 911?"

      Did I *say* that? NO.

      My main problem with the attention that has been drawn is that most attempts to address "the very important issues" have involved making leaps based on facts not in evidence and/or massaging the available facts.

      If someone can't discuss the "very important issues" without first telling me a lie or two (just a little one that supports their view, of course) or without making sure I agree that there's no way the events could have occurred other than the way they assume -- well, then I think it's not going to be worth the trouble.

      If I have to first agree, for example, that there's NO WAY a 140 lb man could assault a 240 lb man, then there's really no point to the discussion. (Are you now going to accuse me of saying that M did assault Z?) Much "discussion" though, has been predicated on exactly that nonsense claim.

      WRT Gore, I don't fully agree with the characterization of Somerby's point. It wasn't that the media paid too much attention to "Gore's sighs," so much as that they misled about them, amplified them, novelized them. Attention to them which criticized the storyline was absent. And, of course, it was all in service to a "very important issue" -- what "kind of person" would our next President be?

      So there's where I see a parallel: once again it is deemed "very important" that we understand what "kind of person" Z is. Pseudo-facts are pressed into service to tell us the answer.

    5. Oh, I see. They misled about the sighs, amplified them, novelized them, but still could have spent the proper amount of time on them.

      You also forget that in the Somerby Lexicon, nobody ever "lies." They "misstate". Unless, of course it is one of his targeted media personalities.

      The bottom line is that Somerby to me gives far to much credit to those media types he disfavors, and far too little to the intelligence of the public to sort through the "bullroar."

      That's a peculiar condition of the supercilious -- and those for whom he is a guru.

    6. "Far too much credit to the media types he disfavors?" Wow. Never heard Bob accused of that.

    7. "Credit" only in the sense that they are able to lead the stupid "rubes" astray.

    8. "... far too little to the intelligence of the public to sort through the 'bullroar.'"

      Which is why the advertising industry has fallen on such hard times.

      "That's a peculiar condition of the supercilious -- and those for whom he is a guru."

      It's like goldy and bronzy, but made of iron.

  3. Somewhat off topic. Here's a case that illustrates the vitues of Stand Your Ground laws. Neighbors 'outraged' after man, 80, charged after shooting burglar

    "What does it say to me and other senior citizens that we will be arrested if we defend ourselves?" asked Anita Dominique, head of the block club in the neighborhood. "This is an outrage."

    Incidentally, race is not an issue here; both parties are black.

  4. David, do you even bother to read the stories you link to?

    Mr. Wright, age 80, was a three-time felon in possession of a firearm.

  5. You'd think Bob would be dismayed about the increasing number of leaked stories concerning the victims' disciplinary problems at schools, in articles which remarkably make no mention of Zimmerman's prior arrest for assaulting a police officer (charges were dropped, for unexplained reasons), a domestic violence complaint against him, and the fact that his father is a former judge and his mother a [former?] court worker.

    This omission if of no consequence, however, compared to the way MSNBC hosts report Zimmerman's history of 911 calls.

    Our tribe in action, once again -- though "our" tribe, in this case, is a reactionary multi-media entertainment conglomerate which hires clowns. But "our tribe is responsible, apparently.

    1. The pushback to turn Martin into the perp and Zimmerman into the victim was predictable.

      On a far less serious (in that no lives were lost) subject, look at the pushback last fall to call Emma Sullivan rude and spoiled for the tweet she wrote about Gov. Sam Brownback.

      Never mind that the governor's office monitors all tweets and tracked the kid down. The real issue here was Emma's parenting.


  6. Of course he reads his links; but he expects no one else will.

    Our David has a long history of offering links to articles which don't support his claims.

  7. A 47-page document from Sanford police detailing Zimmerman's 911 calls:


  8. Quaker in a BasementMarch 28, 2012 at 12:34 AM

    It doesn't seem likely that Zimmerman's string of 911 calls would stretch back to 2001. He's 28 years old now--that would make him 17 or 18 at the time of the first call.

    I suppose he might have gotten an early start as a neighborhood watchdog, but that doesn't sound right. You might think a well-paid reporter--or editor--might raise a question there.

  9. actually... if you go to the sanford city website, they have zimmermans call history.. More like 8 calls since the beginning of 2011.. 8 calls in 13 months.. some were crimes in progress.. Being that he has been neighborhood watch for so many years, one would assume he would make more calls of suspicious activity than the normal person..

    It is funny how it "IS" a big deal when they are stating the factual errors.. Then when it turns out to be wrong, the subject is deemed as not mattering anyway.. It is OK to bring up Goerges indecision's from 7 years ago, but not Trayvons 3 suspension this school year..

    O'Donnell says he couldn't find anything that Trayvon should have done any different.. Perhaps punching a man in the face was the wrong thing to do.. Calling 911 if he thought a strange man was following him? he did have a phone on him.. I see things both sides did wrong..

    People are all assume Trayvon was doing nothing.. the kid who takes a screwdriver to school.. Maybe he was up to no good, on his way back from 7-11.. and where are all these new witnesses coming from? where were they when the cops were interviewing people?? new witnesses, anonymous former coworker from 2005.. a girlfriend(anonymous) on the other end of a phone, who obviously is going to be biased for her boyfriend.. a lot of anonymous sources for trayvons side..

    speaking of the anonymous coworker..

    His story about George seemed very scripted.. He used all the right words to portray a bad image of george.. Jekyll and Hyde.. Agressive.. Overreacted..lost his cool..Got all nuts.. Pure rage.. a temper.. a liability.. flipping out..verbally abusive.. I don't know if anyone else noticed this? possibly planted by Trayvons side?? The fact that they worked at an under the table job(cash pay), there are probably no records to disprove this anonymous guy ever worked with him. says that geoge was fired for all those reason, but it seems odd that they would keep him employed for 4 years, if he was such a problem. It is a lot easier to fire a cash employee than an employee that works for an actual company, with a weekly pay check...

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