Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called Widow’s Web about two politically charged, media-driven murder cases. The subject was all anybody in Arkansas talked about for a couple of years. The book documented how an audience worked into a frenzy by a histrionic murderer with big blue eyes, a publicity-mad county sheriff and slipshod, sensational media coverage helped to compound a tragedy by ruining a good man’s life.
I can still remember my astonishment upon realizing that front page trial coverage in the state’s leading newspaper depicted not the actual testimony and crime scene photos, but an imaginary scenario calculated to cast suspicion on the victim’s husband. Media accounts also falsely depicted a man who lost everything due to his wife’s death as inheriting a fortune.
“It was the popular thing to believe,” one Little Rock detective told me. “You could ask the ladies under every hair dryer in every beauty shop in Arkansas if McArthur was involved, and they’d say yes. They didn’t have to know a thing about the case. They just knew.”
And they were completely deluded.
Writing the book was a life-changing experience. I’ve never read a newspaper or watched a TV news program the same way since—particularly not about a homicide trial.
For the record, that’s where I’m coming from regarding the George Zimmerman- Trayvon Martin murder trial in Florida—a lamentable tragedy of errors marketed as a multimedia morality play on the combustible theme of race. It makes me crazy to see what I call the Mighty MSNBC Art Players and other media figures fictionalize, dissemble and play fast and loose with facts. The case is troubling enough without turning the participants into political symbols.
For example, I don’t care how many times you hear that Zimmerman defied police orders not to get out of his truck and “stalked” Trayvon Martin like a rabbit hunter. There’s no evidence that happened. By the time the dispatcher suggested “we don’t need you to do that, OK?” he’d been walking for some time. His story is that he was returning to the vehicle when the kid confronted him.
Maybe so, maybe not. But there’s scant evidence to the contrary.