THURSDAY, APRIL 20, 2023
Alex Wagner's account: We were puzzled by some of the things we heard last evening on Alex Wagner Tonight.
At one point, Wagner was talking about the recent shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, a good, decent high school kid. She offered this slightly odd remark about Kansas City's "Northland," a two-county area within which Yarl and his family live:
Now, what is notable about Northland, aside from the fact that 60% of its residents are white, is that it sits within Clay County, which is a staunchly Republican area.
That seems like a rather odd statement. Why would it be "notable" if 60 percent of the "Northland" area's residents were white?
According to the Census Bureau, 59.3% of this nation's entire population is (non-Hispanic) white! It's hard to know why it would be "notable" if a virtually identical figure obtained in Kansas City's Northland.
In fact, the two counties which seem to comprise Northland are much more heavily white than that. (According to the Census Bureau, Clay County is 79.2% white. Platte County is 79.1% white.)
It's easy enough to research such facts, but "cable news" programs frequently don't bother. Instead, their hosts may proceed directly with such peculiar remarks as this:
Clay County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump both times, just like the state itself. Missouri voted for Trump in both elections.
"Clay County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump?" As Wagner spoke, a graphic on the screen showed this:
CLAY COUNTY, MO
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RESULTS
Donald Trump 51%
Joe Biden 46.9%
Is 51 to 47 an "overwhelming" vote? Given American voting patterns and Clay County's demographics, we'd say that Trump's margin in Clay County was perhaps surprisingly slender. (Statewide, Trump won Missouri over Biden, 57-41.)
Whatever! Wagner was painting a certain picture, and when cable hosts start panting pictures, their statements may not always make perfect sense.
We've been surprised by some of the work we've seen Wagner presenting of late. Today, though, we want to focus on a "horror story" she told on Tuesday night's program.
WAGNER (4/18/23): You have heard this horror story too many times before...
That's the way she started. We'd have to say that this "horror story" came to us, live and direct, from a realm called Storyline.
Beyond that, we'd have to say that everyone has heard Wagner's version of this horror story way too many times, especially since—as a matter of basic journalism—her story was grossly bogus.
The public has been hearing this "horror story" since 2012. We think everyone has heard the story told this way too many times, but we'd say that especially true of people who were children when Wagner's version of the story started getting told and retold on a regular basis.
Wagner told a horror story in which she picked and chose her facts in a grossly misleading way. In that way, she produced a standard, thoroughly novelized version of a tragic event.
Her story started like this:
WAGNER (4/18/23): You have heard this horror story too many times before.
A Black teenager is out doing a mundane task. In 2012, it was a quick trip to a convenience store. The teenager was 17, and he was on his way back to his father's place with a bottle of juice and a bag of Skittles. He was wearing a hoodie and he was Black.
Inevitably, Wagner started with the bag of Skittles. The Skittles had absolutely nothing to do with what happened that night, but they make the preferred story work.
Did the hoodie play any role in what happened that night? There has never been any particular evidence of that either, but the hoodie also became a part of the standard novelized tale.
Wagner was telling that novelized version of what happened that night. Her story continued like this:
WAGNER (continuing directly): His name was Trayvon Martin, and a 28-year-old neighbor, George Zimmerman, claimed he was acting in self-defense when he shot Trayvon.
There had been a series of robberies in the area and Zimmerman said he shot Trayvon because he was afraid. He feared bodily harm.
Months passed before Zimmerman was actually arrested and charged for killing Trayvon Martin. He wasn't charged on the spot because police said they couldn't disprove Zimmerman's version of events, that he stood his ground.
After weeks of protesters sounding the alarm, George Zimmerman was finally charged with second-degree murder. He was acquitted.
Wagner included the bag of Shittles. As she told viewers what Zimmerman said, she omitted the broken nose and the other injuries which form a part of the fuller story, to the extent that the fuller story has ever been fully known.
On a journalistic basis, there's no excuse for telling this story the way Wagner did. Little real evidence ever emerged to tell us what actually happened that night. Wagner was including the irrelevant details our blue tribe loves while omitting a range of basic facts which don't serve Storyline.
George Zimmerman did indeed say that was afraid that night—that he feared bodily harm, even death, when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
To our ear, Wagner's sardonic tone of voice wasn't especially hard to hear as she cited that statement. That said, did it make any kind of sense that Zimmerman might have had such a fear on the night in question?
While opening with the bag of Skittles, Wagner chose to omit one basic part of what happened that night. She failed to say that Zimmerman and Martin were engaged in a physical altercation—in a violent fight—when Zimmerman said he feared for his life.
Did Zimmerman have any reason to fear? In July 2013, a Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. In the comment section to this essay at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates said that Zimmerman had good reason to be afraid:
COATES (7/14/13): As a younger man, I was in a few fights—mostly on the losing end. Some I provoked. Some I didn't. But in almost every one I can make a case for "death or great bodily harm." One I remember specifically, a guy hit me over the head with a steel trash can at the start. But the fight ended with me overtop of him—much like Trayvon was said to be over Zimmerman—wailing away. He had started the fight—but by Florida law I was the aggressor.
Fights are not like boxing matches. If you provoke one and start losing, your life is basically in someone else's hands. You should be afraid. Punches actually do kill people and cause "great bodily harm."
COMMENTER: I don't see how being on the losing end of a fist fight means a person "reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm."
COATES: I am on the ground and you are on top of me wailing away. I am most certainly in "imminent danger of death or great bodily harm."
I say this as someone who has been in that position, and the person putting someone in that position. It is really, really frightening. And you are in danger of "great bodily harm" at the very least. Punches kill people. Skulls hit concrete or tables and cause great damage.
And that assumes that you know you are only being hit with someone's fist. What if it feels like your being hit with brass knuckles? What if you think you see the person reaching for something to finish the job?
Fights are not tame staid events. They are chaotic, random and very, very scary. They are not regulated. There are no TKOs. Fist-fights kill people—and there is no guarantee that a fist-fight will stay at that level.
The comment thread to Coates' essay is no longer available online. But by the time of the jury's verdict, no one doubted that Zimmerman and Martin had been engaged in a violent fight—and that Zimmerman had been on his back, on the ground, on the losing end of that fight.
Coates told skeptical readers that Zimmerman had every reason to fear for his life. In his essay, Coates said the jury had reached the correct verdict as a legal matter, though he also said that he suspected that it was Zimmerman, rather than Martin, who had instigated the fight.
Here's the fuller passage from Coates' essay, which is still available online. We highlight a very important point:
COATES (7/14/13): The idea that Zimmerman got out of the car to check the street signs and was ambushed by a 17-year old kid with no violent history, who told him "you're going to die tonight," strikes me as very implausible. It strikes me as much more plausible that Martin was being followed by a strange person, that the following resulted in a confrontation, that Martin was getting the best of Zimmerman in the confrontation, and that Zimmerman then shot him. But I didn't see the confrontation. No one else really saw the confrontation. Except George Zimmerman. I'm not even clear that situation I outlined would result in conviction.
Coates' essay can also be seen at The Root, free of any paywall.
Coates suspected that it was Zimmerman who instigated the fight. To his credit, he had the basic honesty to make the following statement:
"But I didn't see the confrontation. No one else really saw the confrontation."
We didn't see it either! Among people who want to be honest about how much they know, that's an important point.
In fact, one neighbor did see the confrontation, up close, as it was proceeding. He testified that Martin was on top of Zimmerman, and was aggressively punching him, shortly before the fatal shots were fired. (This neighbor testified that he had gone back inside his house to call 911 when the fatal shot was fired.)
We didn't see any part of what happened. For that reason, we don't know who may have instigated the fight.
We don't know if Zimmerman was following Martin that night, or if Martin may have been following Zimmerman. We don't know how their paths crossed. In his essay for the Atlantic, Coates said he didn't know either.
If you think such facts have been established about what happened that night, that may be because you've spent that past eleven years listening to people like Wagner telling the story in a journalistically inexcusable way. So has every 20-year-old kid, white and black together (or apart), who has grown up listening to thoroughly novelized accounts of this tragic event.
What happened that night was a "horror story." When people like Wagner pick and choose their facts, they create their own such story.
In truth, the basic facts about this story never did become clear. Along the way, our blue tribe ran with several factual claims about what happened which turned out to be inaccurate. But nothing will ever stop people like Wagner from cartoonizing this "horror story" in the way she did Tuesday night.
Skittles IN, violent fight OUT! Unless we're dealing with simple incompetence, there's no excuse for a multimillionaire corporate journalist to do what Wagner did.
What actually happened on that tragic evening, out back, in the dark, with no one watching? The basic facts of this tragic matter never did become clear.
Presumably, that helps explain why a jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict. Beyond that, we advise you, once again, to consider what Coates said about the fear of death which is legitimate when someone is involved in a violent fight—a violent fight which the journalist Wagner didn't even mention.
There's zero journalistic excuse for what Wagner did. Last night, her "cable news" program was littered with other strange, somewhat loaded remarks.
We feel sorry for every 20-year-old kid who has grown up, in the past eleven years, being told that horror story in the way Wagner continues to tell it.
Read again what Coates said on the day after the acquittal. Why did Wagner mention the Skittles but omit the broken nose which emerged from the unmentioned violent fight?
The answer to that question seems simple; viewers were getting played. Such are the wages of Storyline at polarized times such as these.
Tomorrow: Back to Charles Blow's concern