More than a week after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the backlash against the verdict continues. President Obama spoke some undeniable truths when he noted that the African-American community’s intense reaction to the case must be seen in the context of a long, terrible history of racism. But there is another context too: that of an ideology-based, media-driven false narrative that has distorted a tragedy into a racist outrage.
This narrative has transformed Zimmerman, a man of racially mixed heritage that included white, Hispanic and black roots (a grandmother who helped raise him had an Afro-Peruvian father), into an honorary white male steeped in white privilege. It has cast him as a virulent racist even though he once had a black business partner, mentored African-American kids, lived in a neighborhood about 20 percent black, and participated in complaints about a white police lieutenant’s son getting away with beating a homeless black man.
This narrative has perpetuated the lie that Zimmerman’s history of calls to the police indicates obsessive racial paranoia. Thus, discussing the verdict on the PBS NewsHour, University of Connecticut professor and New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb asserted that “Zimmerman had called the police 46 times in previous six years, only for African-Americans, only for African-American men.” Actually, prior to the call about Martin, only four of Zimmerman’s calls had to do with African-American men or teenage boys (and two of them were about individuals who Zimmerman thought matched the specific description of burglary suspects). Five involved complaints about whites, and one about two Hispanics and a white male; others were about such issues as a fire alarm going off, a reckless driver of unknown race, or an aggressive dog.
In this narrative, even Zimmerman’s concern for a black child—a 2011 call to report a young African-American boy walking unsupervised on a busy street, on which the police record notes, “compl[ainant] concerned for well-being”—has been twisted into crazed racism. Writing on the website of The New Republic, Stanford University law professor Richard Thompson Ford describes Zimmerman as “an edgy basket case” who called 911 about “the suspicious activities of a seven year old black boy.” This slander turns up in other left-of-center sources, such as ThinkProgress.org.
Accounts of the incident itself have also been wrapped in false narrative—including such egregious distortions as NBC’s edited audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call which made him appear to say that Martin was “up to no good” because “he looks black.” (In fact, Zimmerman explained that Martin was “walking around and looking about” in the rain, and mentioned his race—of which he initially seemed unsure—only in response to the dispatcher’s question.)
While this falsehood was retracted and cost several NBC employees their jobs, other fake facts still circulate unchecked: most notably, that Zimmerman disobeyed police orders not to follow Martin (or even, as Cobb and another guest asserted on the NewsHour, not to get out of his car). In fact, there was no such order. The dispatcher asked if Zimmerman was following the teenager; Zimmerman said yes, the dispatcher said, “We don’t need you to do that,” and Zimmerman replied, “Okay.” (Just before this, the dispatcher had made comments that could be construed as asking him to watch Martin, such as, “Just let us know if he does anything else.”)
No one except Zimmerman knows whether he continued to track Martin—or, as he claims, headed back to his truck only to have Martin confront him. No one but Zimmerman knows who initiated physical violence. Both eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence, including injuries to Zimmerman’s face and the back of his head, supported his claim that he was being battered when he fired the gun. It was certainly enough to create reasonable doubt. Yet accounts that deplore the verdict often completely fail to mention Zimmerman’s injuries. Thus, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says only that an unarmed “skinny boy” could not have been a serious threat to “a healthy adult man who outweighs him by 50 pounds”—nearly doubling the actual 27-pound difference between Martin and Zimmerman and omitting the fact that Martin was four inches taller.
The false narrative also makes it axiomatic that a black man in Zimmerman’s shoes wouldn’t stand a chance—especially if he had shot someone white. Never mind examples to the contrary, such as a 2009 case in Rochester, New York in which a black man, Roderick Scott, shot and killed an unarmed white teenager and was acquitted. Scott, who had caught 17-year-old Christopher Cervini and two other boys breaking into a car, said that the boy charged him and he feared for his life. (While the analogy has been decried as false in a number of Internet discussions because Scott actually saw Cervini doing something illegal, this is irrelevant to the self-defense claim: stealing from a car does not call for execution.)
What about general patterns? In the New Republic article, Ford cites a report in the Tampa Bay Times showing that “stand your ground” self-defense claims in Florida are more successful for defendants who kill a black person (73 percent face no penalty, compared to 59 percent of those who kill a white person). But he leaves out a salient detail: since most homicides involve people of the same race, this also means more black defendants go free. Nor does he mention that another article based on the same study of “stand your ground” cases from 2005 to 2010 noted “no obvious bias” in the treatment of black defendants—or mixed-race homicides: “Four of the five blacks who killed a white went free; five of the six whites who killed a black went free.”
One Florida case has been widely cited as a contrast to the Zimmerman verdict and a shocking injustice: the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman said to be serving twenty years in prison for a warning shot to scare off her violent estranged husband. But that’s not quite what happened. Alexander’s “stand your ground” claim was rejected because, after the altercation with ex-husband Rico Gray, she went to the garage, returned with a gun and fired a shot that Gray said narrowly missed his head (a claim backed by forensics). There is plenty of evidence that Gray was abusive, but Alexander was not the complete innocent her champions make her out to be: she also assaulted Gray, giving him a black eye, while out on bail for the shooting and under court orders to stay away from him. Her twenty-year sentence, required by a mandatory minimum for firearm offenses, was a travesty; her conviction was not.
Liberals and disenchanted conservatives who decry fact-free ideological narratives, true-believer hysteria and willful reality-denial on the right should take a good look at the left’s Zimmerman Derangement Syndrome. Some far-right blogs have trafficked in bad information of their own, using Martin’s marijuana use, past fighting, and teenage social-media bluster to portray him as a thug and even spinning bizarre theories about his possible drug dealing the night of his death. Yet this instance, their misdeeds are dwarfed by far more mainstream liberal “faux news” (meticulously documented on a dissenting left-of-center blog, The Daily Howler). As a fiction, Zimmerman the white supremacist rivals Obama the Kenyan-born commie Muslim.
Obama was right when he said that the racial context—the context of a history in which just sixty years ago blacks really could be murdered at will for giving trivial offense to a white person, and of a present in which young black males still face the daily reality of racial profiling—gave Trayvon Martin’s death a powerful and painful resonance for black Americans. That made it all the more incumbent on the media to be scrupulously truthful and responsible in their coverage. At this, they have spectacularly failed, with deplorable consequences.
A version of this article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.