Part 1—In search of George Zimmerman’s gun: On Saturday morning, the Orlando Sentinel did a rather modest fact-check concerning the death of Trayvon Martin.
For the Sentinel, this is a local event. Its reporters were on the story long before the national press—though that doesn’t mean that its reporters are always right, of course.
In this instance, Rene Stutzman discussed five “prominent misunderstandings” concerning this high-profile case. The first concerned George Zimmerman’s gun. We were surprised by what we read:
STUTZMAN (3/24/12): There is a great deal of misinformation surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting. Here are some of the most prominent misunderstandings:Say what? The Sanford police took Zimmerman’s gun? We were surprised by that statement, but then we have an excuse:
Cops returned the gun to shooter George Zimmerman.
Untrue, according to police. Sanford Officer Tim Smith handcuffed Zimmerman, and then pulled from a holster in Zimmerman's waistband the black Kel Tec 9 mm PF9, a semiautomatic. The gun is now in the possession of authorities, officially part of the evidence in the case.
We watch a lot of cable.
Let’s be clear—for ourselves, we still don’t know if the Sanford police took George Zimmerman’s gun. But all last week, we heard a contrary claim on MSNBC—and the contrary claim was used to drive a particular portrait of this unfolding story.
Was Zimmerman allowed to keep his gun? As best we can tell, the claim got its start on MSNBC on Tuesday, March 20. Al Sharpton spoke with Kendall Coffey, a Florida legal figure:
COFFEY (3/20/12): What kind of investigation took place here? Did they get the evidence from different witnesses? Did they really do the ground work so they could undertake an aggressive interrogation? Or did they just listen to the guy’s self-serving statement and say, “OK. You say it was self-defense, that’s good enough for me?” And I have a pretty clear sense of what the FBI is going to think of the kind of slipshod investigation that apparently happened here.According to Sharpton, Zimmerman walked away with his gun—and this fact was used to advance the claim that Sanford police ran a slipshod investigation. For the record, the factual claim had been advanced one hour earlier on Hardball, by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.):
SHARPTON: Well, I think you’re right, Mr. Coffey. Because when you look at the fact that this guy left with his gun, when you look at the fact that we are told that the victim who is Trayvon Martin, was left in the medical examiner’s office for several days, they never even picked up his cell phone to call the numbers to find out who he was, while his father was calling around to hospitals trying to find him. How can you do a thorough investigation when you didn’t try to find out who the victim was and you listen to a self-serving statement by Zimmerman and he walks away with a nine millimeter?
CLEAVER (3/20/12): I was mayor of Kansas City for eight years. We have not had an incident like this in Kansas City, Missouri, in a couple of decades. One of the reasons is we`ve had good police chiefs. But the other—if a police officer shoots a civilian, a person, even if it`s justifiable, if it`s a justifiable shooting, the police officer is immediately suspended with pay.Was Rep. Cleaver’s highlighted statement accurate? We don’t know—and you can feel certain that Matthews didn’t.
This man was able to shoot and kill a kid and then walk away with his gun.
MATTHEWS: I know. I know, sir.
But people, please! This is Hardball! Matthews quickly agreed.
Did Zimmerman walk away with his gun? This certainly isn’t the most important fact in this very important case. But this claim was advanced all week, used to drive a particular portrait of the investigation. On Wednesday night, Sharpton appeared as a guest on The Last Word. He and Lawrence O’Donnell advanced this assertion, even as Sharpton complained that the police had been misstating facts:
SHARPTON (3/21/12) What's even more appalling, not only did they not make an arrest, they let the guy go with a gun, with the murder weapon. “You can go.” And they start becoming his defense spokesmen.Were Sharpton and O'Donnell right? We don't know. That said, O’Donnell’s performance on Wednesday night struck us as MSNBC’s worst of the week, a point we plan to discuss tomorrow. For the record, it seems that police did speak to witnesses, despite Sharpton’s somewhat vague claim.
In these documents that you read to Mr. Bonaparte, they start advocating on behalf of Zimmerman. I mean, it is outrageous. You have the police chief saying this is what Zimmerman was facing. This is, in fact, what happened.
How does he know that? He did not talk to people—he did not talk to witnesses. There’s no corroboration. But he states this as fact.
He, in fact, became the spokesman for Mr. Zimmerman.
O’DONNELL: A gun like that, you want to take it over. You want to take ballistic tests on it. You want to figure out exactly what the range of fire was, how far away was this from the entrance wound. None of that’s being done.
Did Zimmerman walk away with his gun? We don’t know, but on that same Wednesday night, Rep. Corrine Brown made the claim on Sharpton’s program. On Thursday night, O’Donnell advanced the claim again, speaking with the lawyer for Trayvon Martin’s parents:
O’DONNELL (3/22/12): And attorney Crump, are you worried about what we’re going to be able to re-construct given the amount of evidence that's been lost, we do not have immediate access after of the crime to the gun, to ballistic tests on that gun? We don’t have immediate access to the clothing of Zimmerman which is relevant because they say there is evidence in those clothing of blood and grass stains indication of altercations. I’m just looking at things in the police report that we do not have access to that make—that are made reference to in the report?By Friday night, Sharpton was opening his program with the claim about the gun. “Welcome to Politics Nation,” he said. “I’m Al Sharpton. Tonight’s lead, 27 days since the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin and still the man responsible has not been arrested. He is still walking free, still with his gun, still with his gun permit. Each day he remains free is an outrage.”
CRUMP: You know, Lawrence, you’re absolutely right.
Later, Sharpton advanced the claim again. “He not only has not had his gun taken or his permit, he had the police chief becoming his spokesman.”
(Note: According to Stutzman's report in the Sentinel, Zimmerman does retain his gun permit, although the police took his gun.)
Was Zimmerman allowed to keep his gun? As of this morning, we simply don’t know. This certainly isn’t the most important fact about this case—but in typical press corps fashion, a wide array of basic facts have been misstated and/or selectively presented in the past week, especially among those journalists who have adopted an advocate’s role as this story unfolds.
In many precincts, a set of questions was implicitly raised as this case was discussed last week. The most basic questions would be these:
Who needs journalism? Who needs the facts? Does anyone really need all the facts? Or can we survive on novelized tales, novelized stories which are shaped to fit a particular outlook?
Can we exist on novelized tales? People like Matthews have played it that way for a very, very long time. Across the spectrum of major elites, our “elites” have agreed not to notice.
Tomorrow: O’Donnell defines his role