CAN WE TALK: Can we function as a people?

MONDAY, JULY 8, 2013

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.’ ”

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?

Alas! Blow had been extremely selective in his account of Rao’s testimony. He included one part of what Rao said.

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?

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.
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.

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?


  1. It may be that the NY Times "recommends" comments because they are representative of the larger mass of comments, not because they are worth reading (factually accurate, well-reasoned). I believe their presentation of opinion and editorials is based on presenting a range of beliefs and attitudes, not on critical evaluation of what will best inform readers and make them think. Representativeness ensures a wider readership because more people will find their own views mirrored in the paper. If that is the goal -- selling papers -- then the basis for choosing content makes a lot more sense. The mistaken assumption in this post may be that papers like the NY Times consider their function to be informing the public instead of making money for their publisher.

    1. It's not really a mistaken assumption. Somerby is merely calling them on their hypocrisy as they still do pretend to be a source of real news.

  2. Another example of a letter writer assuming something not in evidence was the letter from Anita. It assumes that Z engaged M. In fact, Z's statement is that M engaged him. Rachel Jeantel's testimony seems to support Z's version, although it's not 100% definitive IMHO. There's no evidence at all that Z engaged M, yet Anita seems to believe that this is an established fact.

  3. Well, I listened to that whole exchange and I would say the medical examiner clearly believes that there were one or possibly two strikes.
    She did allow that there may have been more on cross, but only because the defense introduced a fairly elaborate hypothetical where his head was not hitting a flat surface but perhaps was hitting some kind of curb.
    I don't have any problem with the defense introducing a hypothetical, but that's what was said. She was definitive on "head hitting a flat surface", which aligns with the facts she was given.
    On cross, the set up to the questions are as important as the answers. The testimony was damaging, so defense introduced an element of doubt. That's his job.
    I can imagine this playing the other way. If the state relied on a hypothetical on cross, would people also be relying on that? Just curious.

    1. Maybe it's a quibble, but Ms. Rao wasn't the medical examiner. Dr. Bao was the medical examiner who had handled the case. Rao was a medical examiner who had nothing to do with the case. She was apparently brought in because she was indebterd to the prosecutor who had saved her career after she committed a series of bad acts. In short Dr. Rao was a dubious witness. It was bad faith for Blow to base his conclusion solely on this particular witness.

    2. Yes quite elaborate to speculate a fight at the edge of a sidewalk might lead to injuries from the edge of a sidewalk.

    3. One expert claims Zimmerman's head might have been knocked to the sidewalk 157 times and I don't know why David in Ca isn't calling for a SP.

    4. Greg, do you really think the call for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS scandal is a joke? I think you'd feel differently if the parties were reversed?

      Suppose that the Nixon White House had admitted that their IRS bent the rules to hamper liberal groups and help conservatives. Suppose that top IRS officials involved in the scandal took the 5th Amendment and refused to testify. Suppose that the only investigation was done in secret by John Mitchell. Wouldn't you have wanted a special prosecutor? I sure would.

    5. Are you still, at this point, serious about a SP in the IRS ""scandal?"" Talk about reality being dictated by the cable station you watch.

    6. "Talk about reality being dictated by the cable station you watch."

      I think that was David in Cal's point.

    7. I think you are as nuts as he is. This scandal was so absurd from the start, had no link to the White House whatsoever, and has been utterly debunked. The people (some on the left) who fell for it should be humiliated. Dave seems to have missed the news that there was never anything to this at all. He'll get the news eventually, but for now he's basically celebrating the death of this mixed up black kid. It's grotesque.

  4. How do you expect Blow, commenters, and whoever recommends comments, to learn about the case? They're much too busy lying about it.

  5. In my experience with people observing hearings, they have a natural tendency to perceive the thing as "unfair" if they are only hearing from one of two.people involved.
    That's true here. They have heard Zimmerman over and over in statements, in interviews, on tape.
    I actually don't think it's malice or bias. It's natural, and has to do with their sense of fair play, "both sides of the story"
    It doesn't matter as far as the legal case, which has little or nothing to do with objective truth, but is instead about the state's ability to prove guilt on each factor and Zimmerman's ability to defend on justifiability. I don't think it makes them bad or stupid people. I think it makes them like MOST people. They're wary of one side of the story. That's not a bad thing.

    1. What people have heard over and over depends on what cable channels they watch or who they read in the media. Many people saw the child version of Trayvon Martin's photo over and over again and heard about the skittles and heard Zimmerman maligned over and over, if they listened to certain sources. The point of this website has been that there should be FACTS that are presented to the public separate from speculation so that different sources are not presenting such entirely different versions of the same event. I do not believe that anyone is sufficiently skeptical of their own trusted sources, much less taking the side of Martin or Zimmerman as assumed underdog in this situation.

    2. the 'child' version of Treyvon's photo is a grand total of 8 months younger than Treyvon at his death. Unless he was like the fairy kids on True Blood I highly doubt those 8 months made a huge difference.

    3. wrong, it was five years younger

    4. There is support for the 8 month contention, but I don't find it fully convincing. Jonathan Capehart (a big liberal) says it's a myth that was between 11 and 14 years old in the photo. He writes

      Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump told me in February that the Hollister T-shirt photo of Trayvon was taken in August 2011, when he was 16 years old. That was six months before he turned 17, on Feb. 5, 2012. He was killed three weeks after that.

      I have a problem with Capehart's conclusion. He assumes that Crump was telling the truth and that whoever in the Martin family gave Crump the info was telling the truth and whoever told that person was telling the truth. However, it is to the financial advantage of Crump and the Martin family that Travon be portrayed as sympathetically as possible, because they will likely sue Zimmerman and the development. A hearsay statement made by lawyer Crump, not under oath isn't determinative IMHO.

    5. Anyone who assumes Crump is telling the truth about anything risks being exposed as an idiot

    6. I don't see that your website makes any real argument since they don't show the abc tape itself nor to they show anything material being different. But as to the central fact, what Marvin looked like when he died, here is a link to among other things a photo of him 9 days before he died. It also has a debunking of the smear job Twitchy tried to do on Treyvon. Real classy.

  6. The medical examiner considered Zimmerman's injuries slight.

    The fewer the injuries, the fewer the impacts.

    Therefore, one impact is most likely. Multiple impacts are possible, but less likely.

    Also, it's a virtual certainty that SYG will be invoked, even if Zimmerman is acquitted.

  7. it's a virtual certainty that SYG will be invoked, even if Zimmerman is acquitted.

    What do you mean? If Z is acquitted, where or how do you think SYG would be invoked?

    1. George Zimmerman shot a child armed only with skittles and that's all you need to know. Period.

    2. Fortunately, the jury will take a more careful look. They will consider the legal distinctions among murder 2, manslaughter by act, and perhaps culpable negligence. They will look at the law of self-defense and how the evidence as presented comports with this law, bearing in mind that the state must disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. They'll look at all the evidence regarding Z's injuries, not just the witness most favorable to the prosecution. In any event, the judge will instruct them that self-defense doesn't depend on a particular degree of injury sustained by Z.

      I don't know how the jury will rule. But, ABC's legal expert Dan Abrams says he doesn't see how a jury convicts Z of second degree murder or even manslaughter. That is, from a purely legal standpoint, Abrams believes the proper decision is an acquittal.

    3. frankly FL has a very stupid law here. Self defense is an affirmative defense and should have to be proven by the defense. I don't think the defense should have the burden of reasonable doubt but I think it should at least be a preponderance of the evidence and in my book his story doesn't meet that burden. It has way too many holes.

    4. I pretty much agree that the standard ought to be preponderance of the evidence. After all, supposed A killed B and there were no evidence at all except A's claim of self defense, it would feel wrong to find A not guilty. And, I think in a scenario like this, a real-world jury would be likely to find A guilty of manslaughter, at least.

      Unlike Anon, I think the preponderance of the evidence supports Z's version. You can't beat something with nothing. Whatever the weaknesses in Z's narrative, the prosecution essentially has presented no narrative that's consistent with the evidence. All the prosecution has accomplished is to point out holes in Z's story. I think the holes they've pointed out are minor. YMMV.

    5. Anonymous on 7/9/13 @ 12:29A,

      Self-defense as an affirmative defense does have to be proven by the defendant and by a preponderance of the evidence. But if the defendant fails to convince the jury that he acted in self-defense, he gets a second chance: the state must prove it wasn't self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. That's because the charge is unlawful homicide, making the unlawful part an element of the crime. And the state bears the burden of proving all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

      Now this may seem redundant. Why take the trouble to prove something when the state has to prove the opposite and with a greater burden? One reason is that the defense must assert justification to get the very favorable (to the defense) jury instruction on the matter. (By "assert" here I mean present evidence in favor.)

    6. DAinCA,

      "You can't beat something with nothing." Yep. Or to rephrase "Dead men tell no tales." You've put your finger on the crux of SYG -- when someone kills the only rebuttal witness to a homicide, the state starts the race to a verdict chained to an anchor.

    7. deadrat -- I think you mean self-defense, not SYG.

      There's a fair amount of independent evidence supporting many parts of Z's claim that Martin attacked him and was hitting him in the face and banging his head on the sidewalk. None of these points are conclusive, but IMHO the large number of points is impressive:

      1. Z told essentially the same story immediately and has stuck to it. He didn't refuse to testify, as was his Constitutional right.

      2. Inspector Serrino believed Z's story.

      3. Z expressed great relief upon being told (falsely) that the fight had been recorded.

      4. Large numbers of impressive witnesses testified that it was Z calling for help and screaming.

      5. Weakness of the witnesses claiming that Martin was screaming.

      6. Z's injuries are consistent with Martin beating the tar out of him.

      7. Martin had no injuries that would be consistent with Zimmerman beating him up (if Z were on top, as the prosecutor claims.)

      8. Testimony of Good, in particular, was the strongest of the eye-witnesses, favoring Zimmerman.

      9. Martin was young and athletic; Zimmerman was obese. Martin could have easily gone back to where he was staying after he disappeared from Zimmerman's view. It was clearly his choice not to do so.

      IMHO there are a couple of key points in Z's story that are not validated (or contradicted). These would be the claim that Martin reached for Z's gun and that Martin told Z he was going to die.

    8. The whole self-defense argument hinges on whether Martin was going for Z's gun. The gun was concealed on Z's back right hip. Martin would not be able to see it, let alone be reaching for it while pinning Z to the ground and bashing his head in on the sidewalk. Z's lawyer yesterday demonstrated to the jury that the gun was under Z's belly, yet Z himself in the walk through showed the location of the gun to be behind him. That's the kind of holster he bought, one specifically designed to conceal the weapon.

      But anyway, YAY! Now we get to put the victim on trial for having trace amounts of THC in his system. And as we all know, pot makes you violent. Just look at Woodstock.

    9. mm, your snark is admirable. But, I would quarrel with some of your points.

      1. The jury could find self-defense without reference to the gun if they just believe M was banging Z's head on the sidewalk.

      2. From what I've read, it's a myth that the gun was holstered in a place where Trayvon couldn't have seen it. No such evidence has been introduced at the trial.

      3. Pot may not make you violent, but there is medical evidence that it can make you paranoid.

    10. Because SYG carries immunity from civil action. If Z is acquitted, Martin's parents will surely sue him.

      However, just because Z can ask for a SYG ruling, that doesn't mean he'll get it. But the option is retained.

    11. DinC:

      Take a good look at Zimmerman demonstrating in the walk thru reaching for his gun. He is clearly reaching behind him just above his right ass cheek. Now look at Z's lawyer from yesterday demonstrating for the jury by reaching down the front of his pants just to his right of the belt buckle. World of difference. That's all I'm saying. I'm not interested in arguing about it. This is clear and irrefutable.

  8. What they haven't heard is Martin's side of the story. That's all I meant.
    It's a terrible case. I don't envy the jury. They're in the position of putting the responsibility for this on the victim, and they haven't heard his side.
    All this nonsense about "the court of public opinion" is silly. It's a trial, not a political campaign. Acknowledging that the we have only heard one side of whatever this
    altercation was is simply a fact.
    I was amused today to discover that Zimmerman actually had the "MMA style training" that has been attributed to Martin.
    There's a fact that has been ommitted.

    1. It was probably omitted because if you take into account the testimony of today's witness who had knowledge of MMA and Zimmerman's abilitiese, you would be embarrassed to suggest that ol 0.5 was a trained MMA fighter. By any stretch of the anti-Zimmerman mob's active imagination.

    2. that testimony is nothing short of absurd. He trained, 3 days a week, for a year, and was only a 1 out of 10? So that the difference between me as a 0 and this guy would be the same as the difference between this guy and a 2? He must be the worst trainer in the history of training. I teach for a living and if I have a willing student that I am seeing 3 times a week for a whole year and I can't get him to be better than 1 I would quit teaching.

  9. Returning from a convenience store with a snack and a drink, Martin is followed first by car, then on foot.
    How dare Martin feel threatened?
    His role in the tragedy is to be dead.
    Trayvon, you are dead. You had no right to be concerned or to defend yourself.
    Zimmerman says you attacked him. Ipso-facto: You attacked him. That is what happened. Zimmerman (obviously) would never be self-serving.
    Howler, God bless you and your commentators. Even those who link to racist sites.