From the Los Angeles Times:
Murder suspect George Zimmerman has sued media giant NBCUniversal for defamation, alleging the company and its reporters tried to create a “racial powder-keg” by manipulating a tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call to authorities on the night of Trayvon Martin’s death.
As you may remember, on the police call, Zimmerman did not refer to Trayvon Martin’s race until the operator asked for it. However, NBC spliced the audio to make Zimmerman appear to say, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” In addition, according to Zimmerman’s court filing, on March 20 an NBC reporter stated as fact that Zimmerman had “described the victim using a racial epithet,” specifically “coons,” during the call. Many people did think they heard Zimmerman use the slur, but it later turned out he’d said something else, probably “these f***ing punks.”
At the very least, this is atrocious journalism, of course. Different media outlets have different guidelines when it comes to quotes, but it is undeniably wrong to take a quote out of context to fit a narrative. It is also undeniably wrong to state something as a fact that is in doubt. But defamation suits are difficult to win in the U.S., especially when they involve reporting on a high-profile issue of public concern. It will be interesting to see what happens.
The case seems strongest regarding the deceptive audio editing. The Supreme Court has noted that it is problematic when “alterations [to words that appear in quotation marks] give a different meaning to a speaker’s statements, bearing upon their defamatory character,” a principle that presumably applies to recorded audio as well. Recently, the Ninth Circuit allowed a case that is similar to the Zimmerman case — with audio/video editing, rather than word alterations, employed to create the wrong impression — to proceed.
Regarding the racial epithet, while it does seem that NBC aired a harmful factual error, Zimmerman will likely be considered a public figure. This means his lawyers will have to show not only that the statement “[Zimmerman used] a racial epithet” is false, but also that NBC ran the statement either knowing it was false or with reckless disregard as to whether it was. Zimmerman’s filing asserts that the defendants knew the statement was false, but the supporting argument is not strong.
The filing notes that this statement was made “in spite of what the Sanford Police had concluded” and that the federal government decided not to pursue hate-crime charges, and then claims that there was “no evidence, or reason to believe” that Zimmerman had said “coons.” But it did not even become public knowledge that the FBI was investigating Zimmerman until May, the NBC segment noted the police department’s determination that there were “no racial overtones, no hate crime,” and the police department’s decision not to prosecute Zimmerman was the main point of contention in this entire controversy. And there was reason to believe that Zimmerman had said “coons” — lots of people heard it on the recording. The night after NBC made its statement about the slur, CNN had an audio expert analyze the tape, and it sounded even clearer to many that Zimmerman had used the slur. It was days before the matter was settled.