CNN’s Opening Segment

CNN’s Opening Segment

CNN, AC360 MAR 19, 2012

Let’s take a look at how CNN introduced the George Zimmerman (GZ) case to the world. Keep in mind the shooting was only three weeks earlier and this is CNN’s very first prime-time discussion. Anderson Cooper (AC) first summarize the case, then reports that Zimmerman hasn’t been charged because the Sanford police say they have “no evidence to Anderson Cooperdispute his claim of self-defense.” But Cooper goes on to say, “Keeping them honest, though, from everything we’ve heard today, there is something.” So we see that within the opening paragraph of CNN’s prime-time coverage – in the introduction to the segment – Cooper is already implying that the Sanford police department is either incompetent or corrupt.

Let’s pick it up from there with an excerpt from the actual transcript:

AC: 911 tapes of the incident seemed to show that Zimmerman did not flee or even simply stand his ground as Florida’s deadly force law permits. But that he pursued Trayvon Martin with a 9-millimeter pistol.

Now Martin, remember, was on the way back to his dad’s fiancé’s condo to watch the NBA All-Star game. He wasn’t armed, he was carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. He was wearing jeans, white tennis sneakers, and a hoodie.

Again, Cooper is misleading us. Trayvon, a teenage African-American , was not carrying iced tea. He was carrying a watermelon-flavored drink made by The Arizona Tea Company – bringing to mind, I suppose, the outdated stereotype of a black man and his watermelon. AC either thinks his audience is too immature to handle such scandalous information, or he feels being politically correct is more important than being factually correct. And while the substitution of “iced tea” for “watermelon-flavored drink” may seem insignificant and harmless, it will have a profound impact on how the American public perceives the case. And, as we shall see, it will seriously hinder the public’s ability to investigate this case for themselves.

This seemingly innocuous edit serves as an example of how sacrificing or bending the truth for the sake of racial politeness is not only detrimental to the pursuit of justice, it’s extremely harmful to racial relations in this country. For one thing, the attempt to cover it up has only given it more attention (I mean, honestly, did CNN really think we wouldn’t eventually learn the truth?). It also dignifies the stereotype by reinforcing the notion that it’s still relevant. And, finally, it’s an insult to the intelligence and dignity of the American people – of all colors.

Now, whether Mr. Anderson personally knows he’s giving bad information to millions of people is unknown. Either he doesn’t know, which means he and his researchers didn’t do their homework. Or he does know, which means he’s not exactly telling the truth. So much for “Keeping Them Honest.”

Cooper is not only reporting erroneous information, he’s also making unwarranted and highly prejudicial assumptions. The first is that Trayvon Martin was “just walking home.” That’s extremely misleading. If it’s true that TM was just walking home when Zimmerman shot him, then GZ is indeed a cold-blooded murderer and should spend the rest of his life in prison. But that is a question of fact for a jury to decide, not a journalist. GZ claims he saw Trayvon looking in windows, going on to patios, and acting like he may be on drugs. Isn’t it possible that he’s actually telling the truth? In fact, it’s possible that TM was casing the property in search of a unit to break into. Maybe Zimmerman was right when he said “this guy looks like he’s up to no good.” It’s been suggested that TM was just getting out of the rain. This is doubtful, however, since he could have avoided the rain altogether by just going home.

The round-trip to the store should have taken about 30 minutes, and at the time of GZ’s 911 call, TM had already been gone for over 45 minutes. This seemingly crucial information was available from the outset, but completely ignored. Common sense and a little math should tell you that, whatever he was or was not doing, Trayvon Martin was not just walking home. In spite of this obvious conclusion, CNN will continue to portray TM as just an innocent kid walking home, minding his own business.

The second assumption Cooper makes is that Trayvon Martin was unarmed. While it’s true that a bag of Skittles is not likely to inflict much damage on a combatant, an unopened 23.5-ounce canned beverage, if wielded in the right way, could easily knock a person out. This is less destructive than the first assumption, but it is another example of lazy journalism. Or, at the very least, a lack of imagination.

While it may be that CNN switched “watermelon-flavored drink” to “iced tea” to save us from ourselves, or perhaps out of a misguided respect for the Martin family or for black people everywhere, its decision could have been based on a more disturbing justification. The particular beverage TM was carrying is one of the three ingredients of an illicit cocktail called, “Lean.” The other ingredients are codeine and Skittles. This information seems particularly relevant, especially since Lean’s primary side effects include paranoia and aggressiveness. That TM had two-thirds of this addictive concoction at the time of the shooting may be a coincidence. But the fact that TM made the one-mile trip in the pouring rain to get these two very specific items does suggest that he was suffering from more than a sweet tooth.

Did CNN know all this? And, if not, why not? A simple Google search using keywords “Arizona Tea + watermelon + Skittles” yields several references to Lean. And the side effects are well documented. If Cooper or the producers at CNN knew this, then their simple word-substitution borders on journalistic malpractice.

We can now see how the substitution hindered the public’s pursuit of the truth. Not knowing that the switch was made from “watermelon-flavored drink” to” iced tea”, we were missing an important clue. Googling “iced tea + Skittles” wouldn’t have yielded nearly the results of the more accurate search term.

Let’s get back to the transcript.

AC: As we mentioned we have 911 tapes of the incident which we’ve kept in sequence but edited for time in the appropriate content. They start with George Zimmerman’s call apparently from his car near the condo’s complex gates.

Cooper then plays the audio of the 911 call. Here’s the edited transcript:

GZ: This guy looks like he is up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about.

911: OK. And this guys, is white, black or Hispanic?

GZ: Yes. Now he’s coming towards me.

911: OK.

GZ: He has his hands in his waistband and he’s a black male. Something’s wrong with him. Yes, and he’s coming to check me out. He’s got omething in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is.

911: OK. Just let me know if he does anything, OK?

GZ: Get an officer over here.

911: Yes, we got them on the way. Just let me know if this guy does anything else.

GZ: OK. These (EXPLETIVE DELETED) they always get away.

AC pauses the audio here so he can “clarify” for his viewers just what Trayvon Martin was actually doing. Apparently, Zimmerman’s statements to the 911 dispatcher are not to be believed and are summarily dismissed.

AC: Well, what Trayvon was doing was heading back to where he and his father were staying. His family says he may have been listening to music on his iPhone and not even aware that Zimmerman was watching. They claim Zimmerman pursued Trayvon, and as you can hear in the 911 tape, Zimmerman admits it.

Notice how AC reports that “what Trayvon was doing was heading back to where he and his father were staying” as if it were a known fact, unequivocally. But he doesn’t know. He couldn’t know. The only person who does know is George Zimmerman. And according to his comments on the 911 call, TM was doing everything except going home.

Exactly what TM was doing is a question of fact for a jury to decide. Not Anderson Cooper. Not any journalist. For a journalist on a major news network to be so careless, to be so unabashedly one-sided and patronizing, and in such a divisive and emotionally charged case, is reprehensible.

AC also reports that the Martin family claims GZ “pursued Trayvon” and he goes on to say that “Zimmerman admits it.” First of all, the word “admit” is loaded and implies guilt. Second of all, GZ never “admitted” to pursuing Trayvon after the 911 call.

Let’s go back to the call with the non-emergency dispatcher:

911: Are you following him?

GZ: Yes.

911: OK. We don’t need you to do that.

GZ: OK.

After that exchange, there is absolutely no evidence that GZ continued to follow (or pursue or stalk or hunt down or track) Trayvon Martin. But, as you will see, CNN continues to report, or at least imply, that even after being told he didn’t need to follow TM, George Zimmerman did anyway.

This is perhaps the most ubiquitous lie told to the American public during the coverage of this case: that George Zimmerman was told not to follow Trayvon Martin. Not only is this highly prejudicial, it is simply not true! He was never told to not follow him. The dispatcher merely says, “We don’t need you to do that.” And that policy is mainly for the safety of the caller, and to avoid legal culpability on the part of the dispatchers.

One last point, and the most important, is that even if GZ did follow TM after the 911 call, it’s not relevant. It’s not illegal to disregard a warning from a 911 dispatcher. It’s not illegal to follow someone, either. It’s not even illegal to confront someone. In fact, even if GZ did pursue and confront TM, and even if he accused him of being a burglar, or called him dirty names, that’s not illegal. So, even though this issue is debated ad nauseam on CNN, it is completely irrelevant.

Why is it so hard to believe that GZ is just a good guy trying to protect his neighbors’ property, and potentially their lives? And how do you do that without keeping an eye on suspicious strangers wandering around the complex?

Back to the transcript:

AC: In fact, dispatchers told Zimmerman not to even get out of his car. Police, they said, were on the way. That advice was for Zimmerman’s safety and Trayvon Martin’s. Under Florida’s lethal force law Zimmerman could have stayed where he was, stood his ground and as long as he reasonably believed that his life was in danger, fired in self-defense. But as you heard there, he apparently did neither. He apparently followed Trayvon Martin, and at about 100 yards away from where Trayvon was going to meet his dad, confronted him. The moment is captured in another 911 call, this one from a neighbor who hears shouting outside.

To begin with, there is no evidence that the police told Zimmerman “not to get out of his car.” In spite of that, this lie will be repeated countless times. Also, “standing your ground” had nothing to do with it. This was a simple self-defense case.

AC then reports that GZ “apparently followed Trayvon Martin, and…confronted him.” This is truly outrageous! There is absolutely no evidence that GZ kept following TM, or that he confronted him. None.

AC then plays the 911 call that records the screams for help, and the gunshot.

911: OK. And is it a male or a female?

CALLER: It sounds like a male.

911: And you don’t know why?

CALLER: I don’t know why, I think they’re yelling help, but I don’t know. Just send someone quick, please. God.

911: Does he look hurt to you?

CALLER: I can’t see him. I don’t want to go out there. I don’t know what’s going on so –

911: So you think he’s yelling help?

CALLER: Yes. There’s gun shots.

911: You just heard gun shots?

CALLER: Yes.

911: How many?

CALLER: Just one. He just said he shot him. Yes, the person is dead laying on the ground.

911: Just because he’s laying on the ground –

CALLER: Oh, my god.

AC then interviews Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, accompanied by the Martin family attorney, Benjamin Crump.

AC: Mr. Martin, first of all, I’m so sorry for the loss of your son. When you hear these 911 calls, what goes through your mind? What do you think?

MARTIN: It’s heart-wrenching because those actually were my son’s last words. And to hear his last words being cries of help is devastating. You know, and it tears me apart as a father.

AC: You have no doubt that’s his voice crying for help?

MARTIN: I’m sure that that’s his voice. I’m positive that’s his voice.

AC: Police say that this man, Zimmerman, had blood on the back of his head, on his face. Have they said anything to you about how it got there? If it was his blood or your son’s blood. Have they given you details? 

MARTIN: They told me that it was an altercation between the two individuals. But the details, they didn’t give them to me.

AC: As you know, the father of Zimmerman wrote — gave a statement to the “Orlando Sentinel.” And he said, “The media reports of the events are imaginary at best. At no time did George follow or confront Mr. Martin. When the true details of the event become public, and I hope that will be soon, everyone should be outraged by the treatment of George Zimmerman in the media.”

He’s saying his son did not follow your son. But very clearly in these 911 calls, the police say, are you following him, and he says, yes. And the police say, we don’t need you to do that. 

Notice how AC dismisses Mr. Zimmerman’s (GZ’s father) statement completely, and even casts doubt on it’s veracity. He manages to question Mr. Zimmerman’s integrity, while simultaneously pandering to Mr. Martin.

MARTIN: Yes. Exactly. Zimmerman’s — George Zimmerman’s father is — I guess he’s being a father and trying to protect his son. Because obviously that he hasn’t heard the 911 tapes. And if he did, he must have heard a different version than what the world has heard.

AC: Mr. Crump, in your dealings with the police, I mean do — with the local police, do you think they have investigated this fully? Do you think they have taken this seriously?

CRUMP: I don’t. I don’t, Anderson. I think from day one they didn’t. And you know, in those 911 tapes tell a big part of the story. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. For instance, they get to the scene, Trayvon is dead on the ground. And they don’t even run a background check on the person who killed him. But number one, if it was Trayvon Martin who was the trigger man, they would have arrested him day one, hour one on the spot. He’d be still be sitting in jail right now.

AC: You have no doubt that if it was Trayvon Martin who had shot a — you know, a white person that Trayvon Martin would be in jail. That if it was any African-American who had shot a white person, that person would be a suspect, would be in jail.

CRUMP: Absolutely, Anderson. And they could say self-defense all they want and everything. They would still be arrested and put in jail. But I have to say there’s one other point, Anderson. And that is, if Trayvon Martin was white, don’t you think they would have ran a background check of George Zimmerman no matter what he said.

AC: Mr. Martin, let me ask you, because one of the things when I heard that 911 tape that immediately got my attention is one of the earliest things Mr. Zimmerman said. He says this guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something. He’s a black male. Something’s wrong with him. He’s coming to check me out.

So the idea that there was something — that Mr. Zimmerman thought there was something suspicious about your son. Your son was wearing white sneakers, jeans, and a hoodie, which I got to tell you I wear that every single day of my life when I’m not on camera. And I don’t think anybody, even if they didn’t recognize me, would have said well, I look suspicious, and I was wearing the exact — I wear the exact same thing your son was wearing.

As a journalist AC should know the importance of context. Comparing Trayvon Martin wandering around a complex rife with crime, at night, in the rain, to himself while, say, shopping at the mall, is just dumb. And since AC is not an idiot, I can only suspect that this is more disingenuous pandering.

AC: To you is that just a question — is that just a matter of race?

MARTIN: I think it’s a matter of profiling, which I think that’s an issue that Mr. Zimmerman himself considers as someone suspicious. A black kid with a hoodie on, jeans, tennis shoes. But as you said, thousands of people wear that outfit every day. So what was so suspicious about Trayvon that Zimmerman felt as though he had to confront him?

AC: Well, Mr. Martin, again, I’m so sorry for your loss. And the words seem incredibly hollow. But we’ll continue to focus on this. I appreciate you talking tonight.

And Mr. Crump as well. Thank you.

CRUMP: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you very much, Anderson.

Now back to the transcript. Cooper is joined by CNN legal analysts, Sunny Hostin and Jeffrey Toobin.

AC: Jeffrey, you say this case just makes want to scream.

TOOBIN: The — this is a 17- year-old kid who went to buy Skittles and came back dead. Period. I mean that’s what this case is about. However, the Florida law is so peculiar and so protective of people who shoot people that I am not surprised that Zimmerman has not been arrested and I’m not sure he’s going to be arrested.

AC: Really?

TOOBIN: Because I — because I think the law is basically an invitation to use deadly force under basically any circumstance. It allows disproportionate use of force. It says that if you feel threatened, reasonably threatened, even without a gun, you can use deadly force as response.

Remember, Toobin is CNN’s senior legal analyst. Let’s dissect his opening remarks on this case. He first states that a 17-year old kid went to “buy Skittles and came back dead. Period.” He then concludes, “that’s what this case is about.” So Toobin has summed it all up, and he seems to share the indignation of his black counterpart, Sunny Hostin, who is openly frustrated.

But what Toobin says next boggles the mind. He continues, “the law is basically an invitation to use deadly force under any circumstance.” Really? Under any circumstance? This is a ridiculous statement, especially by an experienced lawyer.

Toobin does attempt to clarify a bit. He says, “Florida law is so peculiar and so protective of people who shoot people” that he’s not surprised Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested. Protective of people who shoot people? That’s his legal analysis? He continues, “if you feel threatened . . . you can use deadly force.” That is simply not accurate. You can’t just “feel threatened” in order to legally kill someone. Absurd!

AC then asks the two legal-eagles if the law applies even if the person is being pursued. Again, this is not relevant. And, even if it was, there is no evidence that GZ pursued TM after the 911 call. This false and prejudicial assumption persists throughout CNN’s coverage of the case, and continues even after the verdict.

AC: But even as you have pursued that person?

HOSTIN: And that’s the problem that I have.

AC: Even if you have gotten out of your vehicle?

TOOBIN: Well –

HOSTIN: Even though it’s such a robust law and very broad — probably the broadest law out there in terms of stand your ground laws, bottom line is there’s always that exception, Jeff. And you know that. If you are the first aggressor, if you are pursuing, you cannot avail yourself of this self-defense claim. And I think that is so very clear. Had this been in any other jurisdiction, he would have been arrested and charged with a homicide.

This is our first peek at the former prosecutor, the tendentious Sunny Hostin. Keep in mind that this is her first on-air discussion, and it’s only been three weeks since the incident. But already she has the case all figured out. She states that, “If you are the first aggressor, if you are pursuing, you cannot avail yourself of this self-defense claim.” Wrong! This is her first incorrect opinion of many. Most other legal analysts, including Toobin apparently, disagree. But to her, it’s all “so very clear.” What does Hostin know that Toobin doesn’t, that the Sanford police and D.A. doesn’t, that Alan Dershowitz doesn’t, that I don’t?

It’s quite clear that Hostin, an African-American, has already made up her mind about Zimmerman’s guilt. And in spite of the overwhelming evidence against it, she sticks to that position throughout the case. Even after the not guilty verdict, Hostin continues to claim that “there’s plenty of evidence to convict on second-degree murder.” How a case that never even had probable cause for an arrest can morph into a case with enough evidence to prove murder beyond a reasonable doubt is a mystery. Maybe one day Ms. Hostin will enlighten us all.

We will see that, when it comes to the Zimmerman case, Ms. Hostin is one of the most biased and prejudiced lawyers on television. Furthermore, we’ll see that just about every time she opens her mouth, she says something factually wrong, legally incorrect, woefully misleading, or just plain stupid.

As we get back to the transcript notice how Toobin, to his credit, tries to inject some sense into his colleague’s skewed legal analysis. But the spineless Toobin is no match for an angry black woman. Hostin runs right over him.

TOOBIN: I think that’s — well, I don’t know. The problem here is we don’t know what happened between the 911 call where he says stay away and then the altercation.

AC: Right.

TOOBIN: I mean that’s a lot of time. But we don’t –

AC: Trayvon Martin’s father assured that’s his son calling out for help. That hasn’t been confirmed by witnesses at this point.

TOOBIN: Right. But how they wound up next to each other is just not clear. And I don’t think –

HOSTIN: Well, it’s clear that he pursued him. That Zimmerman pursued him. Had followed him.

No, Sunny, it’s not clear. It’s not clear to me, to Jeffrey Toobin, to the Sanford police, to Anderson Cooper, or to any other respectable legal analyst on TV. As I’ve stated numerous times, there is no evidence to support Hostin’s claim that GZ continued to pursue Trayvon Martin. But Hostin repeatedly presents it as an established fact.

As we get back to the transcript, notice how AC and Toobin again attempt to pull back on Hostin’s erroneous and prejudicial comments, to no avail.

TOOBIN: He said he did. He said he was going to. But again we know–

HOSTIN: That tell me he was the person –

AC: But he also claims the 911 tape that Trayvon Martin is approaching his car so –

TOOBIN: Right. And –

HOSTIN: But he runs away. Because Zimmerman says on that 911 tape, on one of them, he is running. He’s running away. And that’s what we tell our kids all the time. Right? Stranger danger. You run away. I tell my son that. If somebody’s approaching you.

Take note that Hostin is actually using GZ’s statements on the 911 call to support her claim that TM ran away. Why does she believe this part of the call, and dismiss the rest? Why does she think GZ is telling the truth about this and nothing else?

Is it Hostin’s contention that 17-year old Trayvon Martin was unable to outrun a chubby 28-year old, even with a sizable head start? And if TM did run, where did he run to? He didn’t run home. He didn’t run far away to safety. In fact, the evidence says he didn’t run far at all, and instead waited around for Zimmerman for at least two minutes.

The claim that TM was frightened by GZ is laughable. Not only does the evidence show that his behavior was not that of a scared child, it shows just the opposite. A truly frightened child would have either gone home or ran far away from his pursuer. Or he may have knocked on a neighbor’s door for help. TM did none of the above.

He didn’t call the police, either. He didn’t tell his girlfriend on the phone to call the police. He didn’t yell for help. He didn’t do anything to indicate that he was afraid. And for Hostin, and many other legal analysts on CNN, to continue to portray it as such, is truly disgraceful.

AC: But there’s so much that’s not known.

HOSTIN: You feel unsafe, you run. He did the right thing.

AC: We don’t know if Trayvon Martin identified this guy as a neighborhood watch person. We have no idea.

TOOBIN: Absolutely. That’s why — I mean, I think, you know, it’s important to reserve judgment for awhile and let an investigation go forward. I mean this was a residential neighborhood. There could have been people who saw what went on here.

HOSTIN: But it’s been a month.

TOOBIN: I’d like to know –

HOSTIN: But it’s been a month. This happened February 26th. I think in any other jurisdiction with the same set of facts perhaps –

TOOBIN: I do –

HOSTIN: With a different race attached to the parties, this — there would have been an arrest.

AC: I got to say –

HOSTIN: It’s flooring me.

AC: — young male with a hoodie and white tennis — look, I’m wearing white tennis sneakers now and blue jeans and this is literally what I wear every day. If it was a white male walking in his neighborhood, would this guy, Zimmerman, have been saying this person looks like they’re on drugs and suspicious?

TOOBIN: And –

HOSTIN: I doubt that.

TOOBIN: And when the lawyer said, you know, if Trayvon had been the shooter, is there any chance in the world that he would not be in custody at this –

AC: Right.

HOSTIN: There isn’t.

TOOBIN: The answer is no.

HOSTIN: The answer is no.

TOOBIN: But, I mean, I just think — I’ve been looking into this today. There are a bunch of Florida deaths where someone with a gun shot an unarmed person and as a result of the stand your ground law, there was no prosecution. So, you know –

HOSTIN: And that is true, but the exception of the first aggressor still stands and applies in Florida. And I can’t believe that the investigators are saying that there’s nothing to dispute the self-defense claim.

AC: Do you think there will be an arrest?

HOSTIN: I hope there will be an arrest.

AC: Right. But do you think there –

TOOBIN: I just don’t know. I mean I hope we learn more about the circumstances because there’s a lot we don’t know. And — I mean this is — I mean, it’s just a sickening story.

AC: Yes.

TOOBIN: Because this little — young kid is dead. And –

AC: Carrying Skittles and iced tea.

HOSTIN: And iced tea.

TOOBIN: Skittles and iced tea.

AC: Yes.

HOSTIN: That’s right. And he was unarmed. Clearly.

This sets the stage for CNN’s woefully one-sided coverage of the Zimmerman case. It’s a prime example of how black indignation and intimidation, coupled with white guilt and fear of being branded a racist, leads to horrible journalism – and even worse legal analysis.

While they continue to try to reign Hostin in, the ever-timid Toobin and the all-too-Caucasian Cooper eventually get corralled in by Hostin’s persistent and overbearing comments. By the end of the segment they all concur that if Trayvon Martin had been the shooter he would have been arrested that night and thrown in jail, again implying that this a case of racial discrimination on the part of the Sanford police. Or that it’s a case of institutionalized racism in the American criminal justice system. Or both.

It’s important to remember that Toobin and Hostin are not journalists. They’re lawyers. So an even higher level of objectivity is to be expected. They represent the American legal system, which has as a core principle the presumption of innocence. But Hostin does the opposite. And Toobin has no spine.

So this is CNN’s first prime-time discussion of the Zimmerman case – false assumptions, irrelevant debate, erroneous legal opinions, bad facts, and a whole lot of self-righteous, sanctimonious, racial pandering.

This goes on for a while. About a year and a half.

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