George Zimmerman Sues NBC Over Inflammatory Edits of His 911 Call


Yesterday George Zimmerman filed a defamation suit against NBC, accusing the network of deliberately editing the recording of his 911 call on the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin to make him look like a "racist and predatory villain." I am not a big fan of defamation lawsuits, since I don't think anyone has a right to stop other people from saying nasty things about him, even when they are not true. But NBC's claim that the editing was inadvertent is highly implausible, to say the least. This is how Zimmerman's conversation with the police dispatcher actually went:

Zimmerman: Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black, or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

Here is the version that NBC broadcast on March 19, three weeks after the shooting, via WTVJ, its affiliate in Miami:

Zimmerman: There is a real suspicious guy. Ah, this guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something. He looks black.

Dispatcher: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Dispatcher: OK, we don't need you to do that.

Zimmerman: OK.

In addition to making it seem that Zimmerman volunteered Martin's race, with the implication that it was one reason Zimmerman deemed him suspicious, this version immediately appends an exchange about following Martin that actually came after another minute or so of dialogue, heightening the impression that Zimmerman was stalking Martin because he was black. A report by Lilia Luciano that aired on the Today show the next day included this somewhat different but equally inflammatory cut-and-paste job: 

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he's up to no good or on drugs or something. He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male.

Dispatcher: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Dispatcher: OK, we don't need you to do that.

A March 22 Today report by Luciano featured these snippets:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah, a dark hoodie.

Finally, a March 27 Today report by Ron Allen used just those first two sentences, again omitting the intervening 25 words:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black.

Allen was also the correspondent who claimed in a March 20 report that "when Zimmerman was calling the police the night Trayvon Martin was killed, he described the victim using a racial epithet." You can listen to the unexpurgated call here (scroll down); I think it is fair to say that you can hear a racial epithet only if you want to. The Mother Jones transcript renders the part of the recording that Allen apparently had in mind as "fucking [unintelligible]."

Since the racial angle on this story has been prominent from the beginning (whether or not it should have been), it beggars belief to suggest that no one at NBC recognized the implications of presenting the 911 audio the way it was in these four reports. Yet "when the omissions were noticed at the end of March," The New York Times reports, "NBC News conducted an investigation and concluded that the edits were mistakes, not deliberate distortions. Ms. Luciano subsequently left the network, as did a producer who worked with her. Mr. Allen remains at the network." Here is the statement that NBC News made at the time:

During our investigation, it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret. We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to viewers.

Whoops. As a public figure, Zimmerman has to show that NBC knowingly aired something that was not true or did so with reckless disregard as to its truth. Even if the impression left by the editing of his call was not calculated (as Zimmerman charges in his lawsuit), it certainly looks reckless.