The battle around the Trayvon Martin case is threatening to rip America apart, damage its soul and underline the fact that there are two Americas, separate and unequal. That’s why America needs its journalists to do their best in this moment to help America function justly. But when journalists become advocates for a perspective, does that make them unprofessional? That charge were leveled at me recently by Piers Morgan on his show, after I criticized him for not asking tougher questions in his interview with George Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman.
The notion that journalists should not have opinions is archaic. Nowadays, no one would dare end a news broadcast with a paternal and authoritative phrase like, “That’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite did decades ago. Savvy media consumers know bias exists in everyone. Someone who pretends to be completely objective is lying to you, and that’s arguably more dangerous because it’s harder to see their hidden agenda. Media bias is betrayed in all sorts of ways—by the stories we choose to cover, the order in which we cover them, the length we give them, and the perspective we favor. Journalists can have a perspective and still be responsible by searching for and incorporating facts that challenge our perspective. But we cannot, as humans, lack a perspective. It’s not that we must avoid drawing conclusions, we do all the time, it’s that we must not cling to those conclusions when facts challenge them.
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Journalists should absolutely speak up when they see something wrong or when they feel someone is not being honest. Sometimes it’s necessary to not sit passively on the fence. To remove cynicism from journalism is to minimize the power of journalism. I grew up watching Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes and Ted Koppel on Nightline, who would challenge people they didn’t trust and make them earn every assertion. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina we saw important examples of the media advocating for people who were suffering. “There was a body lying on the street of this town that was being eaten by rats,” Anderson Cooper said in his on-air interview with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, his voice trembling with frustration at her self-congratulatory politician-speak. “Do you get the anger that is out here?” Reporters did not neuter themselves by ignoring the facts that Americans were not getting the aid they needed, or giving FEMA the benefit of the doubt when their eyes told them FEMA didn’t deserve it. If they had approached the story with that old school sense of taking no sides they would have let America down.
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In the Trayvon Martin situation, if the media had not become an advocate, there would be no chance for justice to be served. Justice here merely means a day in court because it seems obvious that the scrutiny of a trial is required in this case. Zimmerman is a person with a prior arrest for pushing an officer and an allegation of domestic violence, who was performing neighborhood watch duties, yet disobeying multiple neighborhood watch rules, including carrying a loaded weapon. He shot and killed an unarmed person, who forensics experts have established was screaming help for several seconds before he was shot. Video of Zimmerman 30 minutes after the incident suggests he was probably not injured badly in wrestling with Trayvon. Florida Governor Jeb Bush has said that the “Stand Your Ground” law does not apply in this situation. Given all that, it is impossible to argue that this case does not require a judge and jury to review all the evidence. I don’t know if Zimmerman should be convicted, but I know he should face a judge and jury. If the media stood by meekly then this death would have been forgotten, and the media would have failed to employ its power to make America work properly. When the media gives airtime to people we think are lying and doesn’t challenge them, then we allow them to spread misinformation and we fail America.
I cared enough about the effort to find justice in this case that I inadvertently became part of the story. I regret that because it drew the discussion away from the things that matter, but I do not apologize for my passion or for forming an opinion. Do I think George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin? Yes. There’s nothing wrong or anti-journalistic in thinking that. Do I think there’s clear evidence making it obvious we need a trial that would explore whether or not it was self-defense? Yes. Have I convicted George Zimmerman in my mind? No. Am I open to new facts that could exonerate Zimmerman? Yes. So what have I tried to do in this massive moment in American history? I have sought to use my soapbox to help the effort to see that America does the right thing.