The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Even though the media love to label people as good guys or bad guys, our system of justice is, by necessity, a bit more complicated. Trials are based on evidence and the law, and not what the masses may think of any particular individual. “Bad” people sometimes are found innocent, and “good” people sometimes are found guilty. 

Take George Zimmerman, for example. Zimmerman, the Florida man accused of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin in a highly-publicized February shooting, generally has been labeled as a bad guy by the media, in no small part because of suggestions that his actions were racially motivated. 

And while he ultimately may well be found guilty of a racially-motivated murder at trial, no judge would ever allow into evidence the edited version of Zimmerman’s call to 911 that NBC used in more than one news report to paint him as a racist. 

In the report, Zimmerman appears to have said:

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He looks black.”

However, the full conversation was much different:

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.”

911 Operator: “O.K., and this guy — is he white, black or Hispanic?”

Zimmerman:   “He looks black.”

Now, regardless of what you think of neighborhood watch volunteers roaming the streets at night with loaded handguns, there is a huge difference between answering a direct question posed by an emergency operator and volunteering race as a reason that someone is “up to no good.” Anyone would be outraged if similarly accused.       

And Zimmerman is fighting back, through the courts. His lawyers are pursuing claims against NBCUniversal over the network’s decision to air the edited report, saying the  edited version portrays Zimmerman as a “racist, predatory villain.” That the editing was laughably misleading is pretty obvious, even to NBC, which now is circling the wagons by claiming there was “no intent” to smear Zimmerman. The network reportedly has fired a producer and dismissed the reporter who were involved in the story.

So who’s good and who’s bad?  Those are characterizations, not legal conclusions. Zimmerman will have his day in court to explain his actions. 

And now, so will NBC. 

Posted: 12/19/2012 1:07:45 PM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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