Part 3—The New York Times, novels v. facts: Thanks to the way modern journalists work, we live in a world with very few facts.
The coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death has brought this fact into stark relief. Good grief! On Monday evening’s Piers Morgan show, George Zimmerman’s clothing was back!
Did Sanford police take Zimmerman’s clothes? As Morgan spoke with Alan Dershowitz, he repeated an old refrain:
MORGAN (4/2/12): I think my view, Alan, from the start of this has been a kind of incredulity, I guess, that George Zimmerman wasn't arrested on the night. I mean certainly, if this had happened in Britain, he’d been arrested right then and there and then he would have faced a normal criminal legal process. And clearly, the authorities on the ground were split here as to whether he should have been or not. But to let the guy just go home in the clothes he was wearing, with the—you know, with no apparent legal process even being commenced. Is that—that seems to have really angered people. What do you think of this from a legal point of view?Might we clarify one basic point? “If this had happened in Britain,” it wouldn’t have happened under Florida law! Dershowitz went on to say that Florida law does make it hard to charge people in cases like this.
That said, we were most struck this night by the dog which barked once again. According to Morgan, the Sanford police let Zimmerman “just go home in the clothes he was wearing.”
Is that an accurate statement? Is that an actual fact about this important case? As of last Wednesday, even MSNBC was saying that the police had in fact taken the clothing; rightly or wrongly, the Orlando Sentinel had reported that as a fact way back on March 24. But on Monday evening, on CNN, Morgan asserted the opposite once again. He didn’t even seem to know that this factual claim has been challenged.
A dog was barking again! In his reply, Dershowitz seemed to leap ahead of his own knowledge, just as Morgan seemed to have done:
DERSHOWITZ (continuing directly): Well, I think there's a big difference between arrest, which is a formal legal proceeding for which you need probable cause under the statute. And the statute makes arrest very difficult to achieve. But also, the other factor, they could have done much more forensically. They could have taken DNA from under his nails. They could have taken his clothing away from him. They could have taken, and perhaps they did, close-up photographs.“They could have taken…close-up photographs,” Dershowitz said. But uh-oh: “Perhaps they did!”
I won a case a few years ago as a result of a photograph taken at a crime scene which purported to show a kind of killing, and then we were able to demonstrate that if you blew up the photograph, it showed something very, very different. So the kinds of real-time forensic evidence that can be obtained only within minutes or hours after the crime is absolutely essential.
If the police failed to do that, they really did fail to provide evidence that could give us the truth in this case.
In context, that was pathetic.
In that aside, Dershowitz acknowledged that he doesn’t know if close-up photos were taken. Given the fact, why should we think he knows if Zimmerman’s clothing was taken?
In this exchange, Dershowitz seconded Morgan claim, saying the clothing wasn’t taken. Does Dershowitz know if that is true? We know of no reason to think he does—and we were certainly given no reason to think so on this program.
On Monday, Zimmerman's clothing was back; once again, it hadn’t been taken! Last evening, Catherine Crier made the same factual claim, speaking to Al Sharpton (details below). Sharpton simply accepted what Crier said—but then, he reacted the same way last week when Joy-Ann Reid told him the clothing had been taken.
Sharpton shows no sign of knowing that, in his role as a journalist, he is supposed to establish the state of knowledge concerning such claims for his viewers. But then, Morgan’s performance was little better on Monday night.
Has there ever been a case where so many people played around with so many factual claims? Where people used so many unproven factual statements to create the stories they like? More than five weeks after Martin’s killing, millionaire stooges like Morgan and Sharpton continue to toss around basic claims, showing no sign of knowing when these claims are in dispute.
You’re living in a world without facts. Consider what happened when the New York Times presented its front-page report on this case in Monday’s editions. (To read the report, click here.)
The report ran almost 5000 words. It listed four co-authors. What should the Times try to do in such a report? Let us make these suggestions:
The Times should let its readers know which facts have been established.
The Times should let its readers know when factual claims are still in dispute.
In our view, the Times should skip the novelization—the use of evocative story-telling which produces much more heat than light. And this:
When unfounded claims have been made in the press, the Times should explicitly tell its readers. The Times should explicitly tell its readers when and how they’ve been misled.
Judged by those standards, how well did the Times perform in its sprawling report? Not real well. Let us count three ways:
Combatting novelization: This report is larded with novelizations about both major figures, Martin and Zimmerman. The bathos builds as the reporters mention Martin’s Skittles and/or candy at five separate points in their “news report.” Heart-warming anecdotes are picked-and-chosen about both Martin and Zimmerman; a few other anecdotes are selected to drive other feelings and ideas. Meanwhile, can you explain the relevance of the highlighted passage as journalism?
BARRY (4/2/12): Less than half an hour after Trayvon Martin died face-down in gated grass, a privileged crowd of 17,000 rose to their feet at the NBA All-Star game in Orlando, 20 miles to the south, to sing the national anthem. Then, while people enjoyed their after-parties, his body, not yet identified, was taken to the medical examiner's office in Volusia County.Can you name the journalistic purpose of that piffle about the privileged crowd at the NBA game, with their after-parties? Yes, it makes the report more entertaining. It builds the bathos; it makes this “news report” read more like a novel. But even as we’re entertained, the Times rushes past that claim about photographs of Zimmerman's alleged injuries, failing to alert its readers that a wide array of contradictory claims have been made about this part of the case.
Mr. Zimmerman, meanwhile, was taken to Sanford police headquarters, where, he told his father, the police took many photographs of his injuries. His father said that he had a broken nose, a swollen and cut lower lip, and two cuts on the back of his head.
Did the New York Times try to learn if the claim it reports is true? Did the Times try to learn if the police actually did take "many photographs" of those alleged injuries? At no point does the Times attempt to say. The paper burned 5000 words, often with piffle—but it failed to explicate or explain this very key point.
A suggestion: Next time, could the Times skip the shit about NBA games and describe the conduct of its guild members? Many Times readers have heard many claims about whether photographs were taken. These contradictory claims have been a major part of this story. Those NBA parties are not.
Establishing basic facts: The Times provided a genuine shitload of enjoyable novelizations. But how did it do with the task of establishing basic facts? Let’s return to a much-discussed factual point we discussed in yesterday’s post:
BARRY: However [the altercation] started, witnesses described to the 911 dispatcher what resulted: the neighborhood watch coordinator, 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, and the visitor, 6-foot-1 and 150, wrestling on the ground.But are those really the accurate facts about the participants’ height and weight? New York Times readers have heard many claims about the relative size of the two combatants. Those claims have driven a boatload of partisan narratives.
Is this new account accurate?
The New York Times makes no attempt to say how it knows these basic facts. Why should readers believe this account, as opposed to all the others?
For ourselves, we have no idea—and as with Morgan, so with the Times. The paper seems to have no idea that contradictory claims have been made in this area—that readers deserve an explanation of how this new assessment was reached.
Other key claims are glossed in similar ways. Did Sanford police seize Zimmerman’s gun? Did they seize his clothing? Contradictory claims have been widely advanced, used to drive aggressive narratives about the conduct of the police.
The New York Time skips these questions completely. At other points, their factual reporting is baffling. In its report, the Times reports that “several” people called 911; in a sidebar, in small print, we are told that the actual number is seven.
As a basic journalistic matter, we have no idea why you’d make a reader go hunting for the specific number. (By the way: Is seven "several?") That’s especially true when the fact ties into a very key point, a key point the Times largely glosses in this remarkable passage:
BARRY: Here is what Robert Zimmerman said is his son's explanation: Trayvon was on top, punching and slamming his head into the paved sidewalk. When nobody answered his calls for help, he tried to slide onto the grass. But in doing so, the holstered gun in his waistband became visible.Most witnesses “have not spoken up publicly?” That could be a very key fact, but the Times rushes past in its pell-mell pursuit of more novelization. Just consider the journalistic fail contained in that highlighted statement:
''It is a little bit cloudy,'' the father said. ''But George believes Trayvon saw the pistol, was going to get it, and said: 'You are going to die tonight.' Shortly after that, George drew the pistol and shot him.''
The police have said that this account, at least in its broadest outlines, is backed up by witnesses, most of whom have not spoken publicly.
Citing police, the Times says the Zimmerman family's account “is backed up by witnesses!” That’s a remarkable statement, but wait a minute: The account is only backed by witnesses “at least in its broadest outlines!”
Having introduced this ball of confusion, the Times make no attempt to define what this qualification means. To wit:
According to police, have witnesses backed the claim that Martin was slamming Zimmerman’s head into the sidewalk? Have witnesses backed the claim that Zimmerman cried for help? Have witnesses backed the claim that Martin threatened Zimmerman’s life? There’s no way to tell from this murky account—but the Times floats that pitifully undefined claim about what witnesses may have said (though not yet in public).
As journalism, that is a fail.
A final question about basic facts: Did Zimmerman suffer real injuries? This question has been widely debated and aggressively spun. Continuing on from that NBA novel, this is the Times’ pathetic attempt to explicate this matter:
BARRY: Mr. Zimmerman, meanwhile, was taken to Sanford police headquarters, where, he told his father, the police took many photographs of his injuries. His father said that he had a broken nose, a swollen and cut lower lip, and two cuts on the back of his head.We’re sorry, but that is pathetic. The Times is still working from "grainy video." The paper shows no sign of knowing that MSNBC aired video last week which was really quite clear.
In a grainy police video that shows a handcuffed Mr. Zimmerman being led out of a police car and through the police station, he does not appear to be badly injured; nor is there noticeable blood on his clothing. To many who have been following the case, the video presents a crucial rebuttal of Mr. Zimmerman's account.
But Mr. Zimmerman's father said that by that time, his son had been cleaned up at the scene by medics.
''They were not huge gashes,'' the father said. ''When he went to the doctor the next day, he said he could stitch it, but that he would have to re-cut it since it had started to heal. He may not have gone to the hospital earlier than that because he was in police custody for a while, and was very shaken up afterwards.''
In this passage, the Times presents a classic “some say/he said” dichotomy—some say the tape rebuts the injury claims, Zimmerman’s father says different. But despite its use of 5000 words, the Times make no attempt to evaluate these claims. One example: If Zimmerman sustained a broken nose, should there be “noticeable blood on his clothing?” Would there necessarily be any blood at all?
For the past several weeks, an assortment of cable clowns have played doctor, lecturing viewers about this matter. The New York Times made no attempt to evaluate the things they have said. But that’s because, in deference to the law of the guild, the Times failed a basic test:
Critiquing the press corps’ conduct: This case has been a cable sensation. It’s very hard to fact-check this case without referring to the many unfounded and contradictory claims which have been widely advanced.
But people! That would involve discussing the work of the press! And within the guild, such things simply aren't done! It’s amazing that the Times could devote 5000 words to this matter and produce so little light. But in large part, that outcome followed from the Times’ deference to a tenet of Hard Pundit Law:
Thou must not discuss guild members!
Unless it’s novels you really enjoy, the Times did a very poor job with this sprawling report. In part as a result of this failure, Zimmerman’s clothing hadn’t-been-taken again on last night’s Sharpton program. This time, Catherine Crier rattled the tale as her host sat mutely by.
That familiar old dog was barking again. But was it barking a fact?
SHARPTON (4/3/12): Let me start with you, Catherine. What do you think of the handling of the case so far?Does Crier have the slightest idea what happened in this case? More specifically, does she actually know if they “took the shooter’s clothes?” Just a guess: She doesn’t have the first fucking idea. If the New York Times had addressed this much-discussed point, some basic clarity on this point might have emerged on Monday morning.
CRIER: Well, I think it’s very sad. Because a case—I don’t care who the participants were. A case like this called for appropriate investigation by police officials. You take the shooter’s clothes, you, you know, rope off the area, you do what we`re seeing the FBI doing now. You don’t make that judgment before any investigation has occurred.
And I’m sort of quite surprised, having, you know, started off as a prosecutor and then, of course, on the bench, you don’t do it backwards. And you make an arrest, you take him down or at least you take Zimmerman down and conduct the interrogation, take the clothes, do the forensics. The assumptions made in this case were actually a bit staggering.
Last week, Joy-Ann Reid told Sharpton that the Sanford police did take Zimmerman’s clothing. Sharpton sat mutely by as she did, just as he did last night when Crier told him the opposite. Five weeks after the killing of Martin, this activist turned pseudo-journalist hasn’t even tried to establish the facts about this much-discussed point.
Where does Martin have to go to get some basic respect?
For unknown reasons, Crier was described as a “legal expert” last night. Just a guess: She really performed as a novelist.
Tomorrow: Soledad as a journalist
It’s time for Crier to go: Incredibly, Crier even made it sound, once again, like Zimmerman wasn’t even “taken down” to the station! Are you sure she even knows the basic facts about that?