On Trial

The Trayvon Circus Begins—Why It Could Get Ugly

As opening statements kick off in the trial of George Zimmerman, the media is poised to pounce on every sordid detail. Mansfield Frazier on the coming blow to race relations in the U.S.

An email from a very astute friend in Texas raised a very interesting point: in its rush to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, CNN has launched a new program called HLN After Dark, which will feature a panel of so-called experts discussing every detail of the trial ad infinitum on a nightly basis—and which will most likely set race relations in this country back two decades.

Legal systems in other countries allow for “in camera” proceedings (conducted out of the hot glare of prurient publicity), and they do so for a good reason; the commonweal sometimes trumps the vaulted notion of the public’s “right to know”—and to know virtually instantaneously. Unfortunately for us, that won’t be the case for the Zimmerman trial, which will be live-streamed each day starting Monday and endlessly picked over at night.

Even though the case was initially about Florida’s “stand your ground” law, Zimmerman’s attorneys have opted for a self-defense strategy instead, arguing that their client, a neighborhood-watch volunteer (the judge has ruled that the state may refer to him as a “wannabe cop” and “vigilante”) killed teenaged Trayvon Martin after the two engaged in a life-or-death struggle. Since Zimmerman is Hispanic and Martin was black, every aspect of these proceedings is bound to be fraught with racial innuendo, the kind that will force individuals, be they on the right or the left, into more firmly entrenched positions and greatly increase animus between the two camps.

And the TV cameras will eat it up, making things that much worse, just as they did with the O.J. Simpson murder trial 20 years ago—except now there are more pundits, more networks, and more cable hours to fill. Meanwhile, ever since O.J., trials in America have gradually morphed from being a democratic method of determining guilt or innocence into pure spectacle; or a way for judges and prosecutors to become famous so their chances of running for higher office are enhanced. Defense lawyers in high-profile cases know that win, lose, or draw, the media exposure will greatly increase their stature and reputation, not to mention their bank accounts in all future cases.

But the worst players in these despicable passion plays are the irresponsible pseudo-journalists of the ilk of that snarling, hatchet-faced Nancy Grace. A woman who, lest we forget, was accused of intentionally driving Melinda Duckett (the mother of a missing 2-year-old) to commit suicide back in 2006 with her relentless hectoring and badgering during an interview. Grace eventually settled a lawsuit filed by the woman’s family, but in an act that can only be described as cowardly, she demanded privacy for herself and didn’t want her own deposition in that case to be shown on the air. A privacy she has been unwilling to grant others she seeks to publicly draw and quarter.

The Duckett case certainly hasn’t stopped Grace from becoming a self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner, as she has so amply demonstrated in the Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias cases, and as she’ll certainly continue to demonstrate in the Zimmerman affair. Grace dispensed with any hint or pretense of fair and balanced journalism when Anthony was acquitted—curling her lip, she challenged the sanity of the jury that did not come up with the guilty verdict she’d been screaming for. How dare they vote not guilty after Grace had twisted facts beyond recognition in order to secure a conviction?

Grace engages in a form of tainted yellow journalism that in previous centuries was used by Southern newspapers as they stirred up passions and all but called for the lynching of black men. While this is brutal fare to be sure, it really doesn’t do justice to a woman who is so hellbound intent to deny justice for others.

This isn’t legal analysis; this is showmanship. The ever-rising popularity of such “news” programming speaks volumes about the tastes of a large segment of the American viewing public, which seemingly has lost its moral compass as it tunes in and gleefully watches such garbage posing as journalism. It appears that the “vast wasteland” former FCC chairman Newton Minow warned us about over a half century ago continues to grow, poisoning the body politic and drowning out serious thought and debate.

But the case involving Zimmerman is far different from the other recent cases because of the racial aspect. While there have been other cases of “stand your ground” in Florida and other places around the country, none of them have had the explosive potential of this current case—due almost exclusively to race. This is not to predict that violence will result from the verdict (no matter which way the jury decides, a large number of people are going to be fighting mad), just to point out that still-simmering racial tensions are bound to boil over, perhaps in some very ugly ways.

Networks simply love these types of cases since their only cost is for talking heads. They don’t have to pay for writers, actors, or to build a set; all of that is provided by you and I, the taxpayers. Of course the judge could put a crimp in their voyeurism by not allowing cameras into the courtroom but has already ruled to allow them. Judges too want their 15 minutes of fame, outcomes untainted by media hype be damned.

No matter the verdict reached, the victims won’t be the family of Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman—the true victim will be the delicate racial harmony we’ve been quietly nurturing in this country for decades, ever since O.J. And for what?