In Bureaucracy, History, Politics, Social commentary on July 23, 2013 at 1:35 am

Since June 10, CNN has carried one story above all others: The trial of self-appointed “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

On CNN, especially, the coverage of this trial has been overwhelming.

So much so that CNN–Cable News Network–could rightly be called TNN–Trayvon News Network.

There are several reasons for this, and they say as much–if not more–about the media as they do about the case itself.

First, there was a dead body in the story–the body of Travon Martin.  There’s a well-known saying in the news business: “If it bleeds, it leads.”  And nothing bleeds like the body of a dead teenager.

Second, the victim was not only dead, he was black.

Third, he died at the hands of a nominally-white man–George Zimmerman, the offspring of a German father and a Peruvian mother.

Although the vast majority of blacks in the United States are murdered by other blacks, it’s Politically Incorrect to say so.  On the other hand, it’s perfectly OK to create the impression that whites pose the greatest danger to blacks.

George Zimmerman

Fourth, the trial was televised.  There was absolutely no need for this.  It didn’t threaten to overturn existing law–as did Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” public schools for blacks and whites.

This case proved the opening legal salvo in the history of the civil rights movement and ushered in a decade of activism and bloodshed as blacks sought to de-segregate the South.

Nor did the Zimmerman case even carry the weight of the 1985-6 Mafia Commission trial.  There Federal prosecutors convicted the heads of the five most powerful Mafia “families” in the country and sent them to prison.

While individual Mafiosi had been sent to prison, this was the first time the top leadership of all major Mafia “families” had been virtually wiped out.

It signaled a turning point in the fight against organized crime, with Federal investigators and prosecutors finally learning how to use the 10-year-old Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act to their advantage.

Fifth, televising the trial meant the networks–especially CNN–didn’t have to do anything.  They didn’t have to send reporters into the streets to dig up information.  All that was necessary was to let the camera show what was happening in the courtroom.

Sixth, when each day’s televised proceedings came to an end, CNN and other networks could easily round up a series of “talking heads” to pontificate on the meaning of it all. 

These people had no more idea than the average viewer of what impact–if any–that day’s events would have on the legal fate of George Zimmerman.

But it gave CNN a chance to use up airtime that could have otherwise gone on stories like the national debt, Detroit declaring bankruptcy and the Supreme Court rejecting an Arizona law requiring voters to prove their citizenship.

Seventh, the networks could count on a controversial outcome no matter what the verdict.

If Zimmerman were convicted, his white supporters would be outraged and his black detractors overjoyed.  And if Zimmerman were acquitted–which is what actually happened–then the opposite reactions would occur.

Either way, there was certain to be angry demonstrators in the street.  For the networks this would hopefully include a full replay of the race riots which shook the nation following the police beating of Rodney King in 1992 and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.

Eighth, if rioting erupted, CNN and other networks would rush news cameras to the scenes of carnage and claim they were doing this “in the finest traditions of journalism” to keep the public fully informed.

In reality, they would be doing it to keep their ratings up.

If any of this seems familiar, it’s because–unfortunately–it is.

The 1995 O.J. Simpson trial set the standard for televised murder trials.

It came complete with a weak-kneed judge (Lance Ito), incompetent prosecutors (Christopher Darden and Marcia Clark), bizarre witnesses (Kato Kaelin) and grandstanding defense attorneys (Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and Robert Kardashian).

The case seemed to go on forever.  The primary jury was sworn in on November 2, 1994.  Opening statements began on January 24, 1995, and the trial dragged on until a “Not Guilty” verdict came on October 3, 1995

For those who enjoy wallowing in sensationalism, the case offered everything:

  • Interracial marriage;
  • A famous has-been football player;
  • Sexually-charged domestic abuse (in this case, black-on-white/male-on-female violence);
  • A dead, beautiful blonde;
  • Two grisly murders (those of Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole, and a waiter-friend of hers, Ronald Goldman);
  • Allegations by Simpson’s lawyers that he was the target of white, racist police.

Since then, television networks have repeatedly sought stories that promise to deliver the thrills–if not actual news value–of the Simpson case.

The George Zimmerman trial didn’t offer the ratings voltage of the Simpson one.  But the networks did their best to make it happen.

  1. Another great informative piece of research and reporting. Really hit’s the nail-on-the head with this one…

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