However, I’ve also had the experience of writing a book about a media-amplified murder case that took place in my home state of Arkansas. What I learned was that when reporters and pundits set themselves up as amateur homicide detectives, not to mention as prosecutor, judge and jury, the odds against justice being served grow longer.
I can still remember where I was sitting and what the weather was like when I realized that a ballyhooed front page account of a murder trial in Little Rock’s dominant morning newspaper bore almost no relationship to the actual testimony and crime scene photos. It was that shocking to me. All the errors ran in one direction, casting suspicion on an innocent man for murdering his wife. He was eventually exonerated, but only after a harrowing ordeal.
Meanwhile, a veritable orgy of gossip, speculation and self-righteous moralizing swept the state. “You could ask the ladies under every hair dryer in every beauty shop in Arkansas if McArthur was involved, and they’d say yes,” one beleaguered police official told me. “They didn’t have to know the first thing about the case. They just knew.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that millions are already there with regard to Trayvon Martin. So affecting were the pictures and descriptions of his death, and so moving the grief and immense dignity of his parents, that it’s become easy to cast Zimmerman as a racist villain out of central casting, and to leap to conclusions not in evidence.
Specifically, what exactly took place between Zimmerman and Martin during their fatal encounter? Who attacked whom? We really don’t know, and media accounts, as often happens, haven’t helped. On MSNBC’s “The Last Word” the other night, Lawrence O’Donnell’s guests tried to discuss what Martin’s girlfriend may have seen.
The girl was halfway across Florida, talking to him by cellphone.
There have been numerous similar episodes. Much of what you think you know may be false. Media personalities don’t set out to misinform; mainly, they become True Believers.
It’s possible George Zimmerman’s culpability will never be proved to everybody’s satisfaction. But the kind of painstaking professional investigation President Obama has called for is the only way to try.
Copyright 2012 The National Memo