Part 1—(Unfortunate) signs of the Times: As a people, are we able to conduct a national discourse?
As a people, are we able to have a serious discussion about any topic at all?
It isn’t clear that we can! Part of the problem lies with our “press corps.” Part of it lies with us.
Alas! In one subject area after another, we conduct imitation discussions. Quite routinely, quite persistently, our pseudo-discussions are driven along by blatantly bogus facts and by novelized tribal narratives.
(For the record, our pseudo-discussions are routinely driven by a second type of fact. They’re driven along by missing facts—by basic facts which have been withheld from the public’s view.)
Such discussions aren’t discussions at all. Instead, they are occasions on which atomized individuals and groups get to vent at each other.
Such discussions are pseudo-discussions—and a large part of the problem lies with the work of the press. Consider how the New York Times handled the comments to a column by Charles Blow.
On June 29, a column by Blow appeared in the hard-copy Times, as it does each Saturday. That column was called “The Zimmerman Trial.” It seemed to represent a bit of a departure.
In that column, Blow was more fair-and-balanced about this case than he had been in the past. For our review of that column, see this previous post.
Perhaps this new fairness from Blow occasioned a bit of blowback. On Thursday, the scribe was back with an on-line column about the Zimmerman trial.
(Blow posts an on-line column each Thursday. On this occasion, the column appeared late in the evening of Wednesday, July 3. Despite this fact, the Times lists the column as appearing on July 4.)
In this on-line column, Blow did a great deal of speculating about what might have occurred on the night Trayvon Martin died. In the process, he returned to his earlier, year-long approach, in which he put his thumb on the scale against George Zimmerman, the defendant in the criminal trial arising from Martin’s death.
We’ll discuss Blow’s column in some detail before the week ends. Today, let’s take a look at what the New York Times did with reader comments to this column.
Comments rolled in to the Times. The paper posted exactly 500. Click here, scroll down. (At the Times, comments are heavily moderated. This practice makes perfect sense.)
Alas! Even after moderation, not all the comments made extra good sense. In the very first comment posted, a regular commenter quoted part of Blow’s column. After that, she began to opine, granting herself great license:
COMMENTER FROM CALIFORNIA (7/3/13): "Furthermore, Dr. Valerie Rao, a medical examiner who reviewed Zimmerman’s injuries, testified Tuesday that the injuries on the back of Zimmerman’s head were consistent with just one strike against a concrete surface, not multiple ones. Rao went on to call Zimmerman’s injuries ‘insignificant.’ ”Alas! Blow had been extremely selective in his account of Rao’s testimony. He included one part of what Rao said.
Right. If you're twisted and crazy enough to initiate an altercation, under whatever pretext, and end up killing a young man, could you possibly be twisted enough to pretend you we're in a scuffle, make yourself fall on the concrete and punch yourself in the nose?
He disappeared another.
That commenter was quoting Blow’s column. But Blow had been less than fully honest in his account of Rao’s testimony.
In what way had Blow been selective? Please. Here’s how Cara Buckley described Rao’s testimony in the news report which appeared that morning in Blow’s own New York Times:
BUCKLEY (7/3/13): Jurors also heard Tuesday from Dr. Valerie Rao, a medical examiner in Jacksonville, Fla., who concluded after studying photos that Mr. Zimmerman's injuries were ''very insignificant'' and ''not life threatening,'' and that scrapes on the back of his head could have come from just one strike against the sidewalk. Her testimony cast doubt on Mr. Zimmerman's claim that Mr. Martin struck him repeatedly, banging his head on the pavement, causing him to fear for his life. But under cross-examination by Mark O'Mara, one of Mr. Zimmerman's lawyers, Dr. Rao conceded that Mr. Zimmerman's injuries could have come from multiple blows.Oops. In her testimony, Rao did say that Zimmerman’s injuries were consistent with one blow to the head. But she also said that they were consistent with multiple blows to the head!
Blow chose to omit the second part of Rao’s testimony. This is the sort of thing he’s been doing for over a year, as ersatz editors at the Times look silently on.
Blow’s commenter quoted his bowdlerized statement. She then began to imagine what happened that night. She simply assumed that Zimmerman “initiated the altercation” with Martin. She then imagined the possibility that Zimmerman threw himself on the sidewalk after shooting Martin, thereby injuring himself.
Should the Times have posted that comment? Should the Times have published Blow’s account of what Rao said? You can argue it flat or argue it round. This morning, we want you to ponder something else:
We want you to consider the comments to Blow’s column which the Times recommended. We want you to consider the paper’s twenty “NYT Picks.”
Good lord! Out of the 500 comments it posted, the New York Times selected twenty it thought were especially good. It listed those comments as NYT Picks.
This was the second such comment:
COMMENTER FROM NEW JERSEY (7/4/13): What I don't understand in this Florida law is: Who gets to define the roles?Good God! All through that comment, the commenter seems to assume that Zimmerman is pleading not guilty under terms of Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
In this case, Zimmerman is claiming he was “standing his ground” because he felt threatened. But so was Martin. I mean, if you had just gone to pick up some candy and were walking home by yourself with no weapons, when suddenly some crazed middle aged guy runs after you with a gun, wouldn't you try to defend yourself too?
Martin was defending himself just as much as Zimmerman. More—he didn't get out of a car against specific 911 instructions to meet the “danger.” (How you can “stand your ground” when you're not standing but running toward it I don't understand.)
If it's true that Martin slammed Zimmerman's head on the concrete (which there is no evidence for), then Martin was acting in defense according to Stand Your Ground—he was in danger.
So who gets to define the role?
Answer: the white guy with the gun.
This law is a sickening celebration of violence and a very clear attempt to legalize racist violence, intimidation and murder.
As he continues, the commenter indulges in several other speculations and assumptions. He falsely asserts that Zimmerman was instructed not to get out of his car. (By all indications, the exchange in question came after Zimmerman was already out of his car.) He simply assumes that Zimmerman was “running toward” Martin when the altercation occurred.
Beyond that, the commenter engages in pointless speculation about who was involved in “standing his ground.” Was Martin involved in standing his ground? Possibly! But Martin, who is no longer living, isn’t charged with a crime. If he were, he could of course claim that defense, as anyone in Florida can.
That said, let’s return to our original point. Rather clearly, this commenter seems to think that Zimmerman is pleading not guilty on the basis of the “stand your ground” law. But Zimmerman isn’t making that claim, as everyone on the planet knows unless they're New York Times readers.
Alas! This highly irate, all-knowing commenter seems to be misinformed on one of the most basic facts of this case.
Question: Why in the world would a major newspaper recommend that comment? In all honesty, this comment shouldn’t have been published at all, since it assumes facts not in evidence, makes bogus assertions and engages in highly inflammatory speech.
But forget about the Times’ decision to publish that deeply flawed comment. Why would the Times recommend a comment which is built, from start to finish, around a false factual claim?
The answer to that question seems obvious. Someone at the New York Times doesn’t know his ass from his ascot when it comes to this high-profile case. But then, what else is new?
Zimmerman isn’t pleading not guilty on the basis of the “stand your ground” law! But to all appearances, some editor at the New York Times doesn’t know that bone-simple fact. And good grief:
By our count, six of the twenty comments listed as “NYT Picks” seem to assume or assert that Zimmerman is pleading “stand your ground.” Six of the comments the Times recommended are built around this one bogus fact!
Having posted 500 comments, the New York Times recommended twenty. But six of those comments are misinformed about a bone-simple part of this case.
In a rational world, that would be a strange event. But this is the way the New York Times rolls. It rolls this way each morning.
As vampires live on human blood, the New York Times seems to live on false facts. Are we able to have a public discourse with a “press corps” like that?
Tomorrow: Forget about the bogus facts. Can we have a public discussion if journalists reason like this?