NBC should be held liable for the editing of George Zimmerman’s 911 call in ways that made Zimmerman appear to be a racist.
In a grotesque and apparently malicious act of misreporting, NBC, in multiple broadcasts, aired doctored, heavily edited versions of the 911 call, misleadingly moving around Zimmerman’s words like a Rubik’s Cube. The result gave a false impression of the tragic incident in which Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and it exposed Zimmerman to the hatred, scorn and contempt of millions of viewers.
Zimmerman is suing NBC and the network is fighting back. But the network’s actions, and its responses to complaints, indicate it willfully and knowingly damaged Zimmerman’s reputation.
This is part of the actual February 26, 2012, conversation between Zimmerman and a police dispatcher:
Dispatcher: Sanford Police Department.
Zimmerman: Hey we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy, uh, it’s 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.
Now compare that to what NBC reported on March 19, 2012, deleting the dispatcher’s critical question to make it sound as if Zimmerman both: (a) volunteered that Trayvon was black and, worse yet, (b) said Trayvon was up to no good because he was black. According to NBC’s report, Zimmerman stated:
“He looks like he’s up to no good, he looks black.”
The dispatcher’s key question, asking for Trayvon’s race, curiously wound up on the cutting room floor.
The following day, on March 20, 2012, NBC doubled down, this time via another reporter relaying that Zimmerman had stated, “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.”
But the actual audio portion, wherein Zimmerman referenced a “black male” later in the call, was as follows, in which he is simply further describing what the dispatcher asked earlier, since the police are on their way:
Dispatcher: That’s the clubhouse, do you know what the- he’s near the clubhouse right now?
Zimmerman: Yeah, now he’s coming towards me.
Zimmerman: He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.
It gets worse. The same day, NBC struck again, reporting on NBC Nightly News and the MSNBC website:
Sanford Police say that Zimmerman shot and killed Martin in self-defense, a shooting without racial overtones, no hate crime. But when Zimmerman was calling the police the night Trayvon Martin was killed, he described the victim using a racial epithet.
Just one problem: at no time did Zimmerman use a racial epithet. The actual call went as follows:
Dispatcher: Just let me know if he does anything, ok?
Zimmerman: (unclear) See if you can get an officer over here.
Dispatcher: Yeah we’ve got someone on the way, just let me know if this guy does anything else.
Zimmerman: Okay. These [expletive] they always get away. Yep. When you come to the clubhouse you come straight in and make a left. Actually you would go past the clubhouse.
Dispatcher: So it’s on the lefthand side from the clubhouse?
The expletive is . . . “assh*les,” which wins Zimmerman no accolades from a finishing school but certainly is not indicative of a racist. Elsewhere on the tape, where Zimmerman was alleged by NBC to have muttered “f*cking coons” he, according to every expert, actually said “f*cking punks.”
As Zimmerman’s attorney writes in the complaint against NBC: “The truth, as known to the defendants, was that Zimmerman said ‘f—— punks’ and there was no evidence, or reason to believe, that Zimmerman uttered a racial epithet during the call.”
But wait, there’s more! In two additional March reports (on the 22nd and the 27th), bringing the total to a whopping five, the Peacock Network again brought together the “he’s up to no good” and “he looks black” statements.
By now, America was calling for George Zimmerman’s head on a platter, thanks largely to NBC.
Only after other news outlets noted NBC’s malice — the New York Post, on April 5, described NBC’s doctored audio as “pretty damming evidence of willful misconduct by NBC News” and noted it could incite racial violence — did NBC finally issue a (sort of) apology to its viewers and terminate two employees. Incredibly, however, the network claimed the doctored audio was simply a “mistake.” To this day, NBC has never truly apologized to America for its clear wrongdoing, much less to George Zimmerman.
Besides, as the lawsuit notes, “by then, the damage was done, the indelible image of Zimmerman stalking Martin because ‘he looks black’ fixed in the public consciousness.”
George Zimmerman now lives in hiding, in constant fear for his life, forced to wear a bulletproof vest, with no prospect of employment or a normal social life. NBC led the nation’s witch-hunt and fabricated evidence that he was a racist. But what’s one man’s life ruined in the race to boost ratings and pump liberal narratives?
Defamation cases this clear-cut are rare. This should be a slam-dunk case for the plaintiff.
But last week, circuit-court judge Debra Steinberg Nelson tossed out the portion of the suit related to the March 19 broadcast and said she needs to do more homework before deciding about others. The entire suit may even be dismissed. Nelson’s reported reasoning for throwing out the claim is that Zimmerman failed to abide by a Florida statute concerning defamation cases against news outlets, which requires that a victim notify the outlet of the offending statement five days before filing the suit. (Zimmerman’s attorneys formally notified NBC on December 4 and the suit was filed on December 6 — only two days later.)
But let’s take a look at the statute. It reads:
770.01 Notice condition precedent to action or prosecution for libel or slander.– Before any civil action is brought for publication or broadcast, in a newspaper, periodical, or other medium, of a libel or slander, the plaintiff shall, at least 5 days before instituting such action, serve notice in writing on the defendant, specifying the article or broadcast and the statements therein which he or she alleges to be false and defamatory.
Its purpose is clear: It is intended to allow the defendant a chance to remedy, at least somewhat, the offense (e.g., with a retraction/correction) before the litigation commences, in part so that the complaint will have the most up-to-date and thorough information (e.g., “Defendant then issued the following retraction but . . . victim nonetheless suffered . . . ”) and perhaps even serve as a cooling-off period before someone files suit. Zimmerman’s attorneys technically goofed in not waiting five days after formally sending NBC the notice. But surely they should be, by any reasonable interpretation of the law, given a chance to amend the complaint.
Worth noting: Multiple news outlets, such as the AP , ABC, and Huffington Post, seem to be incorrectly reporting that Nelson threw out that part of the case on the grounds that the statute requires the victim to notify the news outlet within five days of the defamation itself. That seems to be a misinterpretation or misreporting of Nelson’s ruling, unless Nelson has misread the statute.
The statute, in fact, does not list any notify-by date but rather simply requires that a victim must notify the news outlet, then wait five days before filing the suit. The implication that Nelson found the statute to be one of limitations is likely incorrect. (P.S. If you recognize Judge Nelson’s name it’s because she is the same judge who presided over Zimmerman’s criminal trial. Hey, it’s Florida!)
But, statute squabbles aside, what’s NBC’s defense against the defamation? Hang onto your hats for this one. NBC’s lawyers claim first that Zimmerman was a public figure at that time. (In fact, he was what we call an involuntary or limited-purpose public figure — this isn’t exactly Tom Cruise.) The network’s legal team also says Zimmerman cannot prove NBC’s employees acted with actual “malice,” which is required for a successful defamation claim concerning a public figure.
Malice, for purposes of defamation, is defined as either knowing what was said was false, or having grave misgivings about its truthfulness. NBC fits the bill, even by the most generous of interpretations. As the lawsuit states: “Defendants knew (or recklessly disregarded that) their statements were false, but nonetheless intentionally and maliciously portrayed Zimmerman as a hostile ‘racist.’” Can there by any doubt the complaint is correct? What justification, other than deliberate, willful action, exists for what NBC did to Zimmerman? Did a well-meaning employee just happen to accidentally edit the tapes in a way that made Zimmerman sound like a racist, with no ill, malicious intent? Did the reporters spouting these lies never bother to listen to the actual audio?
Regardless of how one feels about George Zimmerman or the not-guilty verdict, there is no doubt the man was defamed by NBC. Zimmerman’s case is one that should concern any American, regardless of political stripe, who values accuracy and integrity in media.
If defamation law has any weight, and it certainly should, Zimmerman should reap millions — an amount hefty enough for NBC to feel the punch.
— A. J. Delgado is a conservative writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.