Part 2—Journalist dons a new hat: Watching the press corps assemble the facts is often a troubling experience.
Yesterday, we considered a factual conflict about George Zimmerman’s gun (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/26/12). Today, let’s consider the way the press has reported the facts about Zimmerman’s phone calls.
On February 26, Zimmerman made a call to the Sanford police concerning Trayvon Martin, whom he considered suspicious. This phone call was part of the tragic set of events which ended in Martin’s death.
But this wasn’t Zimmerman’s first such call to the Sanford police. Way back on March 17, Lizette Alvarez reported a background fact in the New York Times:
ALVAREZ (3/17/12): Mr. Zimmerman lives in the predominantly white gated community where the shooting took place. A criminal justice major in college, he often patrolled the streets in his car. In the last 14 months, Mr. Zimmerman had made 46 calls to the police, officials said, reporting everything from alarms and disturbances to reckless driving and, most commonly, a ''suspicious'' person.Alvarez sourced her fact to the Sanford police. That same day, the Miami Herald reported the same fact. The Orlando Sentinel soon followed suit: According to the Sentinel, Zimmerman “contacted police 46 times in the past 15 months, the [Sanford police] reported.”
Zimmerman had made 46 calls to the Sanford police since the start of 2011. Is that fact accurate? We would guess that it is, but we aren’t entirely sure, in part because we follow the work of other American news orgs.
The upper-end American press corps is a bit like New England weather. If you don’t like the facts, just wait a while:
On March 19, the CNN Wire reported this fact: “According to Sgt. David Morgenstern of the Sanford police, Zimmerman called 911 46 times since 2001” (our emphasis).
On March 22, the Associated Press reported this: “Zimmerman, who was captain of the neighborhood watch and licensed to carry a gun, made 46 calls to police since 2004, according to department records” (our emphasis).
On March 23, the Washington Post repeated that claim in a front-page report: “He called the police department at least 46 times since 2004 to report everything from open garages to suspicious people.”
So it goes when the mainstream press corps assembles the simplest facts. In this instance, everyone agreed on the number of calls—Zimmerman had made 46. But depending on what news org you checked, he had made that number of calls since 2001, 2004 or the start of 2011.
On Sunday, matters got worse. This isn’t a hugely important fact, but in such an emotional matter, almost all facts will be put to good use by folk who have taken a side. On Sunday, Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, offered a version of this fact on Meet the Press, one of the nation’s most famous news programs.
Almost surely, Jealous’ factual claim is wrong. But his factual error was used to advance a certain view of this case:
JEALOUS (3/25/12): George Zimmerman needs to be locked up and no matter how we feel about these laws, this law isn't what gave permission for him to do this. What gave permission was a, a chief and a force in that town that was willing to misconstrue this law to the benefit of somebody who they had talked to 46 times in 56 days. I mean, they should have known something was off with this guy when, when he had called the cops 46 times just this year.By Sunday, Zimmerman had called the police “46 times in 56 days”—46 times just this year. And this factual claim was being advanced to help us form a view of this case—to help us see that Zimmerman must be a bit of a nut. Alas! David Gregory just sat there and took it as Jealous made his factual error—an error which served a particular outlook. No one challenged Jealous’ statement, as CNN’s Don Lemon had done at the start of the week when this claim was first advanced.
On March 18, Lemon spoke with Goldie Taylor. Like Jealous, she had a point to make:
TAYLOR (3/18/12): It's worth noting that George Zimmerman, since January 1st of this year, has called 911 46 times. In any—Taylor was willing to settle for two years—or even for five! But as she started, she embellished a fact to advance the idea that Zimmerman was a bit of a nut.
LEMON: I think it was 2011.
TAYLOR: In any jurisdiction, even 46 times in a year, two years, make that five years, that person would have been named a nuisance caller.
In this case, Lemon corrected her error. One week later, Gregory and his all-star panel let Jealous’ misstatement go.
Despite his errors, Jealous has always struck us as a decent, well-intentioned man. (He rushed to criticize Shirley Sherrod after Andrew Breitbart slimed her.) We’ll assume he was acting in good faith when he made his misstatement on Sunday—a misstatement he originally made on March 22 on CNN, with insinuation attached. (On that occasion, Soledad O’Brien didn’t correct him.) That said, does it matter if facts like these are correct? Facts which aren’t all that important?
Presumably, yes—it does matter. But especially in an emotional case, various hustlers, dimwits and clowns will work quite hard to play you, enacting a culture which has ruled cable "news" over the past fifteen years. The facts they state they will often misstate. They’ll fail to state many other facts—the facts which don’t serve their preferred story-line. Perhaps most importantly, they’ll work very hard to keep you from seeing how many facts are unknown.
They do this in service to various gods—but not to the god of journalism. Consider the work of Lawrence O’Donnell on last Wednesday night’s The Last Word.
This was the day of the “million hoodie march,” a demonstration in New York in remembrance of Trayvon Martin. Midway through his program, O’Donnell turned to a pair of guests, each of whom was wearing a hoodie.
(To watch this segment, just click here. We cringed, but only to keep from laughing. Your results may differ.)
Back to O'Donnell's performance: After playing tape of Martin’s parents, he made a bit of a fashion statement. Then, in a truly remarkable statement, he explained his own role:
O’DONNELL (3/21/12): Trayvon Martin’s parents speaking at a rally in New York tonight. With me now, Goldie Taylor, of NBC`s TheGrio.com, who was at that million hoodie rally tonight in New York, and the host of Make It Plain on Sirius XM Radio, Mark Thompson, who will be at the rally tomorrow with Reverend Sharpton in Florida.Needless to say, Taylor lit into Bonaparte, the action she had been booked to perform. But consider the remarkable statement O’Donnell made before asking his question:
Thank you both for joining me tonight.
You know, I had the hoodie on all day. And at about 9:25, as I was heading down here, without even thinking about changing it, I realized, you know what? I feel like a prosecutor tonight. I better dress like a prosecutor. And—and you know, that’s the way I’m feeling about it.
I just want to get your reactions to what you have heard so far, what you heard from Mr. Bonaparte, the city manager. He has the authority to fire this police chief right now tonight, before he goes to bed. He’s—you’ve listened to him. He’s approaching this very carefully.
What do you think, Goldie? More carefully than he has to?
In a fawning, presumably bogus statement, O’Donnell suggested that he too had planned to wear a hoodie that night, changing his mind around 9:25. (Viewers who simply believed this claim should have their cable cut off.)
Had O’Donnell planned to wear a hoodie? Everything is possible. But there’s little doubt about the meaning of his second remark. According to this loudest of men, he wasn’t doing the work of a journalist this night.
O’Donnell was working as a prosecutor! He said he dressed in a suit and tie so he would look the part.
Question: Should the anchor of an evening “news” show perform the role of a prosecutor? We hadn’t seen a journalist advance such a claim since July 2000. A quick bit of background:
In a typical lynch mob performance, Tim Russert had savaged Candidate Gore for the full hour on Meet the Press. Some of Russert’s facts were wrong—and many of his facts were massaged. Embarrassing trivia were spindled and mutilated, producing prepackaged results.
Result? In the days which followed, the mainstream “press corps” spilled with praise for Russert’s wonderful work (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/00). This is part of what Margaret Carlson said as she mocked Gore and clowned for her brilliant pal, Don Imus:
CARLSON (7/20/00): Russert was a prosecutor. And while people don't like the press...Russert was like a prosecutor, and he did a very good job.Russert was a prosecutor, she cooed. But was that Russert’s job?
Russert made many mistakes that day—but he spun the hour in the way the mainstream “press” wanted. In the past two weeks, O’Donnell has played the same sorts of games, including his deeply ridiculous effort on last evening’s program.
Tomorrow, we’ll review last night’s work. But O’Donnell’s declaration last week forces us to ask a question: Should O’Donnell work as a prosecutor when he hosts his program each night? Or should he restrict himself to the traditional role of a journalist?
O’Donnell is one of our biggest and loudest fools. He has been so for a very long time. But his statement last Wednesday night raises a question:
In tribal times like these, do we need actual journalism?
Tomorrow: O’Donnell and O’Reilly