Press, lawyers, advocacy groups, and the misreporting of the Martin-Zimmerman affair

by Walter Olson on July 29, 2013

Cathy Young arraigns the press for “an ideology-based, media-driven false narrative that has distorted a tragedy into a racist outrage.” Bob Somerby at Daily Howler has been documenting chapter and verse for some time, including this reminder of how the New York Times early on, taking dictation from Martin family lawyers, popularized a super-inflammatory “two-shot, cold blood” narrative that influenced public perceptions. Much of this is already familiar to readers of Overlawyered coverage including posts discussing media handling of the case here, here, here, here, and here.

My own theory — admittedly shaped by my professional interests — is that if you dig beneath the failure of a credulous press here you find a failure in legal ethics. While the press did publish one untruth after another about what happened that night and about the principals, a large share of those untruths can ultimately be traced to the offices of Benjamin Crump & Co., with some later help from Angela Corey’s office.

What about ideological outlets like ThinkProgress, which disgracefully promoted one error after another in egging on the press frenzy? To quote what I wrote at the time Zimmerman was charged:

The thing is, “Stand Your Ground” hadn’t really been a pet issue one way or the other for many of those who now harp on it. I think the better answer is: because many people yearn for ways to blame their ideological opponents when something awful happens. It’s much more satisfying to do that than to wind up wasting one’s blame on some individual or local police department for actions or decisions that might not even turn out to be motivated by ideology.

Consider, for example, the efforts to set up the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council as somehow the ultimate villain in the Martin shooting. Left-wing groups, assisted by labor union and trial lawyer interests, had been pursuing a campaign against ALEC for months before the Martin case, in hopes of making the group radioactive among generally liberal donors like the Gates Family Foundation and the Coca-Cola Co. Nothing had worked — until the synthetic Stand Your Ground furor finally afforded an opening.

{ 9 comments }

1 wfjag 07.29.13 at 3:25 pm

One of the truly depressing aspects of Ms. Young’s article are the comments by one commentator, who, after finally admitting that he was not familiar with the facts, the evidence presented at trial, or the applicable law, continued to insist that Zimmerman was guilty of a crime, because he, an adult, killed an unarmed “child”. This commentator, inter alia, insisted that there was no evidence that Martin assaulted Zimmerman – although, he later admitted he did not know that “MMA” meant “Mixed Martial Arts” so that the testimony that Martin had Zimmerman on the ground, and was striking him MMA style, was proof of battery. The same commentator, also, contended that whether Zimmerman was in reasonable fear of death or grievous bodily harm was irrelevant to the fact that he was guilty of a crime. What is further depressing, is that I have seen any number of commentators of other articles about the case who reflect the same views. Of course, it doesn’t help that ABC recently, using selective editing, made it appear the juror B29 had stated that Zimmerman was guilty of murder.

Still, I believe that certain lessons can be drawn from the case. These are ones I have taken from it:

1. The world of Harry Potter lives in our news media. As if by magic, a Brown man (Hispanic or mixed Black, Hispanic and White heritage, who identifies himself as Hispanic), who is a Democrat, Obama-supporter, who protested the abuse of a Black man by the son of a senior police official and who mentored a couple of Black kids whose father is in jail, is transformed into a “White Hispanic” (a heretofore unknown ethnic group of unknown origin), conservative, racist, Republican, who stalks 7-year-olds and other Black males, looking for the opportunity to kill them;

2. That no photographs of Trayvon Martin were taken after he reached puberty;

3. That when a Brown Man, in self defense, kills a Black Man, that is proof positive that all White People are racists;

4. Don’t sucker punch, or ground and pound MMA style, some guy in a CCW state;

5. It is illegal to exit your vehicle in the neighborhood in which you live;

6. Never let a Black Person who watches Fox News on a criminal jury (apparently this is a corollary of the rule that you never let someone who watches Fox News on a criminal jury – since they are so soft on crime, they’ll vote to acquit, whatever the facts); and,

7. Since only White People shoot and kill teenage and young adult Black Males, all those reported murders in cities such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit, etc., cannot have happened.

2 William Nuesslein 07.30.13 at 7:19 am

wfjag’s comment is excellent. I would add that the outrage of a man getting away with murder did not apply to the OJ Simpson Case. OJ’s acquittal set off demonstration of joy by black students in law schools.

We have two examples of people’s inability to understand evidence at all. The pictures of a bloody Zimmerman and the testimony of Mr. Good’s seeing the ground and pound had no relevance to many commentators including the former law teacher, president Obama, and harvard professor Ogletree. HNicole’s blood on the sock on OJ’s bedroom floor carried no weight either.

3 marco73 07.30.13 at 8:40 am

There is a crowd (Google: Dream Defenders) who want “Stand your ground” removed from Florida law. They have been conducting a sit in, at the reception area of Florida Governor Scott’s office, for 3 weeks. They won’t leave until the governor calls a special session to revoke “Stand your ground.”
The governor has been out of town, and the legislature won’t be in session again until March 2014.
Florida taxpayers, and I include myself in that group, have already paid close to $200,000 in additional security and air conditioning costs, to keep these protestors secure, and cool, during July in Tallahassee.
The governor and the legislature are ignoring them, and the news media don’t have anything new to report. So to try to draw some more attention, the sit in protestors are going to hold a “People’s Trial” of George Zimmerman for the “murder” of Trayvon Martin. Of course they will reach a fair verdict.

4 Texjudge 07.30.13 at 11:58 am

There may be a Zimmerman/ Martin 2 brewing in New Orleans. Last Thursday at 2AM a white homeowner shot and critically wounded a 14 year old Black kid who had jumped the homeowner’s fence. The homeowner has been charged with attempted 2nd degree murder. The kid has a history of nonviolent criminal offenses and it must be noted that, unlike Martin, he was committing a crime, trespassing, when shot. The homeowner has been suspended without pay from his city job and belongs to a fairly wellknown family in the New Orleans area.

5 Richard Nieporent 07.30.13 at 2:31 pm

This was a big story in the Washington DC area in 1988. Carl Rowan was a journalist for the Washington Post He lived in DC that had (and has) a strict gun control policy. One evening he encountered a teenager who had been skinny-dipping in his pool and shot him. Fortunately the teenager was not badly hurt.

In case you were assuming that Mr. Rowan was a big supporter of the 2nd Amendment, you couldn’t be more wrong. The irony is that he was and a strict gun control advocate.

“In a 1981 column, he advocated “a law that says anyone found in possession of a handgun except a legitimate officer of the law goes to jail—period.” In 1985, he called for “A complete and universal federal ban on the sale, manufacture, importation and possession of handguns (except for authorized police and military personnel).”

He was charged with firing a gun that he did not legally own. However, his lawyer can up with a novel defense at the trial.

“He also said the pistol he used was exempt from the District’s handgun prohibition law because it belonged to his older son, a former FBI agent.”

The trial ended in a hung jury and he never was retried. Oh, and one other interesting fact about this case. Carl Rowan was black and the teenager was white.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Rowan

6 Timothy Harris 07.30.13 at 3:26 pm

The kid has a history of nonviolent criminal offenses and it must be noted that, unlike Martin, he was committing a crime, trespassing, when shot.

I’m very surprised to find you don’t think battery is a crime. And yes, there was eyewitness testimony of said battery.

7 Hugo S. Cunningham 07.30.13 at 4:43 pm

There is much less doubt, whether reasonable or not, about the facts of the New Orleans case. How will it play out before a jury? Some jurors might strictly apply law that a threat to property alone (when not accompanied by breaking into an occupied home) does not justify deadly force. Others might favor jury nullification– taking a habitual burglar out of circulation is a public service.

I see an argument for curfew laws. If cops (not shooting guns) challenged kids out at such an unreasonable time, a life might have been saved. Properly designed curfew systems can provide exceptions for minors in legitimate job commutes or late activities.

8 Hugo S. Cunningham 07.30.13 at 10:41 pm

Can the Martin family lawyers be sued for defamation, or is deliberate falsehood merely the zealous representation of one’s client. Is there a different legal standard inside and outside the courtroom?

9 Bob Lipton 07.31.13 at 7:44 am

Hugo, to judge by the statements of the District Attorney’s office and other examples recounted on OVERLAWYERED, Americans have an absolute right to say anything so long as they are either practicing attorneys or collect a government paycheck.

Bob

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