Friday, October 12, 2012

NBC: Liable for Libel?

The very first thing that struck me as exceptionally odd in this George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin fiasco came almost immediately after the news broke that he had shot a teenage boy dead. It had nothing to do with whether he or the victim were black, white, brown, yellow or red. It had nothing to do with color at all. It was simply the fact that he got out of his vehicle with a loaded gun. He knew as soon as he slammed the door shut that he was entering a very dangerous territory; one that immediately compromised his own common sense and sanity. Given what I know today, I feel the same way.
Forget the recording with the dispatcher for the moment. Initially, I paid little attention to it. Whether Trayvon attacked him first or not was not that important to me because, as far as I was concerned, Zimmerman knew exactly what he was capable of doing with that gun when he steadied himself and sidled into the unknown. No one walks with a gun without understanding the possible consequences, and that Kel-Tec PF9 pistol empowered him. It enabled him to play police officer, judge, jury and executioner with all of the bravado of Paul Kersey, and that's precisely what he did. Paul Kersey was the character played by Charles Bronson in the Death Wish movie franchise. Take away the weapon and George Zimmerman would never have moved stealthily into the darkness, confronting a fictional fear that was as frightful as the shadow he cast on that dreary Sunday night. There was no real danger lurking about; it was created by his need and strong passion to become some kind of legendary figure that haunted his soul for years. He had to prove to himself and others just who he was. To that end, he succeeded, but at a huge loss.
Trayvon Martin was a nobody in the sense that none of us are, but you cannot put a price tag on life. He was a typical teenager who would have spent his teen years in obscurity, like most other boys and girls his age -- listening to the songs from Mac Miller's Blue Slide Park and kickin' to the rhythmic beats of Akon. His world was different from ours as adults and unless we are in step with the minds of today's youth, we just don't get it. Right on and out of sight were as out of sync to him as lunchin' and tizzle are to us. Certainly, when Zimmerman was lunchin' that night, Trayvon was in a tizzle. (See: Hip Hop Slang.)
Because of what George Zimmerman did on the night of February 26, Trayvon is classified as either a martyr or a gangsta, when all that really matters is that he should have been left the hell alone. Because of Zimmerman, this child will never walk in his father's footsteps. He will never become what he aspired to be, whether his mind was made up or not. After all, he was still quite young. He was at an age when aspirations are supposed to run wild. Sadly, he was snuffed out by a thief in the night, whose only screams were for power and glory.
My thoughts on this matter have nothing to do with NBC or any other media organization. I think on my own two feet, thank you, and if racism ever crossed my mind because the victim was African-American and the perpetrator was not, I never jumped to that conclusion. Most certainly, had I, it would NOT have been because of something that appeared on the Today show. I've learned, like most people, that you cannot trust any one news source. Where the Wall Street Journal runs on the conservative side, for instance, the New York Times is at the opposite end of the spectrum; and since the advent of reporting on newsworthy events, from thousands of years ago, opinions have been an integral part. It's the nature of the beast. Who remembers the tears flowing from Walter Cronkite's eyes as he announced the death of JFK on live television? Who could possibly be neutral on the day the Twin Towers fell? As objective as media are supposed to be, they are not, and the only advice I can proffer is to consider all options; listen to every side, considering that all sources are multi-faceted and not always reliable. Remember when WFTV reported that George and Cindy Anthony inked a book deal with Simon and Schuster? Did you ever read that book? Was the story ever rescinded?
This leads me to whether or not NBC should be held accountable for a story that skewed the events of the night of February 26. Quietly, I will tell you that skews and news are pretty much interchangeable these days, but in this case, the report that originated at an NBC affiliate station in Miami, WTVJ, before it aired on the Today show, ran perpendicular to the actual event, where Zimmerman purportedly said:
"This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black."
The New York Post reported a slightly different version on the NBC coverage:
“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.”
The actual transcript of the conversation between Zimmerman and the Seminole County emergency dispatcher clarified the error. Zimmerman did not say it like it was reported:
Zimmerman: 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 black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
I will agree that the televised segment made George Zimmerman look like a racist because it appeared that he pointed out Trayvon's color without being prompted, and that's simply not true. However, does it rise to the level that warrants a lawsuit and monetary settlement? 
I'm not here to defend Zimmerman, but I'm not going to condemn him, either; certainly not on this one. Why? Because I have experience in this field and I can genuinely empathize with him. NBC clearly did him an injustice. The network does, however, have more going for it than meets the press, so to speak. For one thing, did George Zimmerman have a "good" name at the time of the report? While the incident happened over three weeks prior, the news of the event actually broke over a week before the NBC story aired. By then, Zimmerman's name was already festering, and rumors of racism had already abounded.
Many of you are aware of what happened to me during the Casey Anthony case -- that I was attacked ferociously and voraciously by a fringe element that labeled me as gay, with AIDS, an alcoholic with DUI convictions, and a convicted felon. Convicted of what felonies, I do not know, but the list didn't end there, nor did it end with me. My friends and family were insulted and accused of crimes, as well. Names and addresses were published. Online documents, such as tax records, were altered. My parents were supposedly card carrying gay communists with AIDS. Several of my e-mail accounts were hacked. I saw counterfeit documents with my own eyes, so I completely understand why Trayvon's family shut down his social sites.
I went to the police with what I thought was hardcore evidence on my computer. Granted, it's not easy to identify creeps that call themselves "DEAD DAVE" and other anonymous names, but they can be found. That's what computer crimes units are for. While it went nowhere, I also contacted a defamation attorney who helped me tremendously. Ultimately, between the two resources, I gathered comprehensive knowledge of what constitutes libel and what can legally be done about it.
First of all, here's a quick primer. If it is written, it's libel. If it is spoken, it's slander. Both are considered defamation. In NBC's case, it could be all of the above because it was seen, read, and heard. The problem is, it's tough to prove and the laws in the United States make it a very difficult nut to crack.
In my case, there was a genuine malicious design. The objective of those people was to destroy me, physically and emotionally. They wanted me dead and said so. That's what trolls do. In NBC's case, there was no such intent. Was there bias? Yes. Or maybe no. It depends on which side of the fence you're on. The media are supposed to remain truthful, but we know that, in today's world, it's far from reality; where even reality shows are well-choreographed. While Zimmerman's supporters will tell you NBC's report was so slanted against him it was sickening, Trayvon's people will tell you the complete opposite. NBC will tell you it was a matter of time constraints -- editing a story to fit in a defined time slot.
While my trolls wanted me dead, I had no direct threats. No one said they were going to kill me and without any real menace, veiled or otherwise, law enforcement was powerless to act. That's when I decided to contact a defamation attorney. While I had no money to mount any sort of lawsuit, the attorney did tell me he would freely advise me if I found a local attorney to take on my case. I never did pursue that venue, but he continued to help. One of the key aspects of proving libel deals with search engine standings. A lot hinges on how search terms stack up in the hierarchy, and engines differ in their results. If you do a search for "marinade dave", how long do you have to scroll before something nefarious shows up? The higher the defamation in the pecking order, the more of a case you may have. Still, in my situation, I couldn't go after any one person or even a group because no such entity existed. There was no structured organization; no corporation and no headquarters. In Zimmerman's case, there's NBC.
So what does Zimmerman have stacked in his favor? Not much, really. When the news broke, he automatically became a public figure. Actually, it began the moment he squeezed the trigger, whether he knew it or not, and just because it wasn't reported right away, which it was, locally, he was no longer a private citizen. While I was merely a bit player in the Casey Anthony case, he became the star attraction; the center ring in a vast media circus. While media outlets could have looked at me as a culprit in my situation, they chose not to. In Zimmerman's case, he is either guilty or he's not, and there's no in between. I think we've already established that the media is not always fair and impartial, and to be frank, there's no law that forces them to be.
According to The Florida Bar, the "mere fact that a person does not like the way an article portrays him does not entitle him to damages. Rather, a defamatory communication, in its classic definition, is one that tends to hold a person up to hatred, contempt, or ridicule or causes him to be shunned or avoided by others."
If people are shunning Zimmerman, could it be because of his own doing, not NBC's?
In Florida law, there's also the element of substantial proof: 
While "truth is a defense" to a claim of defamation, Florida common law has taken that notion slightly further by permitting publishers of allegedly false statements to show those statements are "substantially true" or that portions that are untrue are so insignificant that a typical reader neither would realize the difference nor draw a different conclusion about the plaintiff if the false statements had not been included. In determining, then, whether an article is libelous, Florida courts review the article as if the allegedly false statements had been omitted. If the article purged of the error would not affect the mind of the reader differently, the article is not libelous. This test allows a defendant to demonstrate the general truth of the report, even though some portions may contain inaccuracies.
If we remove the NBC report from what we know to date, would it change our minds about George Zimmerman? Did the report motivate anyone (or enough people) to turn against him by altering their opinion (at that time) regarding whether or not he was a racist, and what kind of adverse effect  could it have on his future? Who or what is more to blame, NBC or George himself?
It's very difficult to prove libel. It's very expensive, too. Who or what is prompting the defense (or George) to file a suit? Robert, Jr.? Where will the money come from? Because this would be a civil matter, how would his criminal defense attorneys fit into the equation? Zimmerman would be up against a huge corporation, so, unless he is hoping for a quick out of court settlement, what kind of risk is he willing to take considering his odds of winning or losing?
I understand that this situation is far removed from what I went through, but in the case of media, there are issues concerning time constraints that would work in their favor. I question how difficult it would be to prove that the network set out to destroy George Zimmerman's reputation. One other thing to take into consideration is the competitive nature of an industry where advertising revenue is based on ratings. Scoops are what count. Yes, news outlets should strive for the truth, but tell me honestly, aren't shocking stories what we really want ? Aren't they called headlines?
I have one more question that I'd like to address, and this one goes to George Zimmerman's most ardent supporters. It deals with the goose and the gander. If NBC should be held responsible for destroying his "good" name, who should be held accountable for the horrible smear campaign against Trayvon Martin? What Website(s) wrote: "TRAYVON MARTIN WAS A DRUG DEALER" and "A YEAR OF DRUG USE CULMINATES IN PREDICTABLE VIOLENCE..." with nothing to legally substantiate the claims? Do they fit the description of defamation?
Incidentally, George Zimmerman was on drugs, and that's the truth. You can't sue me. Whether he took them that day is something else, but why not try Googling "trayvon martin was a drug dealer" and see what you get on the first page? Hmm... Could that be a lawsuit just waiting to happen?
Cross posted on the Daily Kos