When the shooting of Trayvon Martin became national news in 2012, it opened up a discussion about race and the criminal justice system in the United States. But since the trial of George Zimmerman began three weeks ago, coverage has taken a turn toward the sensational. Brooke talks to Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans about the evolving quality of coverage of the Trayvon Martin story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the last few weeks, the cameras of cable news have been focused on Sanford, Florida and the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The killing spawned conversations about race, guns, Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws and a “Million Hoodie March.”
But in the three weeks since the beginning of Zimmerman's trial for second-degree murder, broader discussions of race in the US have taken a back seat to murder trial minutia. Eric Deggans, media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, says trials are like catnip to 24-hour news channels.
ERIC DEGGANS: Trials are actually breaking news on a schedule.
[LAUGHS] So the great thing about a trial, of course, is that you know it starts at about 9 a.m., it’s gonna end at about 4 or 5 p.m. every day. You generally know at the beginning of the day which witnesses are gonna be on, and there's a sense that witnesses could say anything. You can plan around it, but you still have that breaking news patina, and it keeps your viewers glued.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They’re also great narratives about the human condition, I guess.
ERIC DEGGANS: Oh sure, I mean, there's a reason why there's an entire genre of scripted television that’s based around trials and criminal justice. As much as you want to look at the Zimmerman trial and sort of say, well, that’s tabloidy and that’s crime and why are we paying attention to that, I think this situation sort of distills a bunch of important truths about America. Can people get the same level of justice, depending on what their race is or depending on who they kill?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you look at the coverage of last year's Casey Anthony murder trial, well the media were obsessed with that too. And if that isn’t a tabloid story, I don’t know what is.
ERIC DEGGANS: But at least in the Zimmerman case, there are larger questions to justify the attention. It took over month of protesting and all kinds of public comment to push Florida authorities into even prosecuting Zimmerman after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin last year. And it became not only a national event, it became an international event. So to have the trial that resulted from all of that attention also get a high level of attention makes a lot more sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's say the attention makes sense, do you think that the coverage is responsible?
ERIC DEGGANS: Well, I don't like the way in which a lot of this coverage seems to be reducing this to almost like a sports event. You get the sense that if you replace prosecution and defense with the names of sports teams, you know, you’d feel like you were watching SportsCenter.
[FOX & CNN CLIPS]:
MEGYN KELLY: That was the state's star witness. How’d she do? Where do we stand?
FAITH JENKINS: That testimony is probably the biggest coup for the defense because if –
SUNNY HOSTIN: I think that it was a huge mistake for the defense to call Tracy Martin. It was a big mistake.
JONNA SPILBOR: The prosecution has lost points by putting her on the stand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, when the story first broke, we heard from all kinds of voices, from Deepak Chopra, to LeBron James, to President Obama, especially on the issues of race. But where are those voices now? Where are those questions now?
ERIC DEGGANS: The reason why we're not hearing them now is because they haven't been a part of the trial, because there's not much evidence pointing to race as an element of what happened between these two people. George Zimmerman didn't use any racial slurs when he was talking to the police during his 911 call or his subsequent descriptions of what happened.
A best friend of Trayvon Martin, who says that she was on the phone with him right before the fight started that ended with his shooting death, said that he used a couple of slurs in describing George Zimmerman. But that was mostly his attempt to describe someone that he thought was following him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve written in the Tampa Bay Times and also in your book, Race-Baiter, that too often, the impulse in race-tinged controversies is to hang a lot of ancillary discussions on the event, because this is the only time the world is really paying attention. Do you think in this case we should keep raising those questions or, because they're not part of the trial, we shouldn't?
ERIC DEGGANS: That is a tough question. CNN, for example, did a really interesting special about the N-word and how it's used, and they also talked about the term “cracker,” which is for some people - is a comparable word that’s used for white people. And-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, come on!
ERIC DEGGANS: [LAUGHS] For some people. And for me, it was the kind of program that I thought boy, I wish this had happened six months ago.
DON LEMON: These words can cause a visceral reaction when people hear them, but they played a pivotal role in two major stories this week, the George Zimmerman murder trial and the allegations around celebrity chef Paula Deen. It’s a catalyst for an honest and difficult conversation. That’s all we’re trying to do here.
ERIC DEGGANS: When you have that kind of discussion, the discussion isn’t really about the actual issue that’s on the table. It's about these larger issues that are proxies. So if you could have this discussion outside of conflict, then you can actually try to understand the other person's point of view a little more. You don’t do that when you're in the middle of a heated battle. I'm constantly pushing for coverage of race that falls outside of crisis. Let's consider making race a more central and steady part of our news process. Let's talk about it more often.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ultimately, will trial coverage of the kind that we've seen in this case be useful to us?
ERIC DEGGANS: Will we learn something from all of this coverage? I don't know because so much of the impact of this trial is gonna be wrapped up in what the verdict is. That's when we’re going to see all this commentary about race and people talking about the criminal justice system. If the jury comes back and says that George Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder, there are going to be people who feel like finally the system got pushed into delivering justice for Trayvon Martin's family.
And there will also be a lot of people who will feel that the system got bullied into sacrificing a guy who should not be going to jail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric, thank you very much.
ERIC DEGGANS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times and author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.