For someone allegedly charged with analyzing the way the media does their job, Howard Kurtz fails to grasp the point with an alarming constancy. Belying his conservative sympathies, Kurtz gave cover once again to conservatives feeling icky about their inherent racism. Kurtz interviewed Frances Robles of the Miami Herald, who got the "scoop" that Trayvon had been suspended for having an empty bag with marijuana residue in it, 'suspicious' jewelry (which was never reported stolen or missing, yet somehow still relevant to report) and suspicion of tagging school property with graffiti.
Now a real journalist interested in media analysis would ask about where Robles got this information (rumored to have been leaked by the Sanford Police), or why this information is at all probative to the case.
But no, Kurtz and Robles turn navel-gazing into an art and discuss instead how mean readers are to poor misunderstood Robles when they point out how completely irrelevant Martin's teenage shenanigans are to the facts in the case. 'Cause it's all about the reporters presenting "both sides," doncha know?
KURTZ: Now, you broke the story on Monday that Trayvon Martin had been suspended from school three times. Once for possession of marijuana, and there was another incident involving women's jewelry. Explain.
ROBLES: We've learned that he got caught marking up a wall with graffiti and that when the school resource officer went the next day to investigate, they went through his book bag to find the marker for the graffiti, and instead they found a little bit more jewelry than a high school junior should have in his bag -- wedding bands and things of that nature.
But because there was never a victim and there was no one ever saying, hey, that's my jewelry and it was stolen, there was no charges. He was never arrested. And, in fact, he was suspended for the graffiti. He was not suspended for burglary.
KURTZ: Talk a little bit about the reaction to that story. There were 5,000 comments posted online, and many of them were removed by the "Miami Herald". What happened?
ROBLES: I think that same day, you started to see a tide change, and not just because of that story. There were a few different things that happened the same time. People started discovering Trayvon's Facebook or his Twitter, his digital fingerprint that showed that some of the photos that the family had shown of him were kind of outdated.
And so, then all of a sudden, the emails that we were getting and the comments that we were getting that were overwhelmingly in support of Trayvon, they started to shift, and people started saying really negative and vile things and, frankly, most of -- I didn't see most of the comments because, as you said, they were taken down.
KURTZ: Right. Right.
But now, in fairness, in that same story, you quoted the attorney for the Martin family, Benjamin Crump, as saying that the whole business about the suspension was completely irrelevant. We think everybody is trying to demonize him.
So, that brings me to the sort of central question: why was it newsworthy that he had been suspended given what happened on that tragic day?
ROBLES: I think it's just as newsworthy as all the things that we've printed about Zimmerman. I mean, no one has had an issue of digging up his domestic violence complaints of the past, with an arrest that he had, that also was dismissed. And a case that's this big, the interest is so monumental, frankly, you really want to give a full biographical portrait of who are the players that are involved here.
This is what happens when you dumb down the media to a simple binary thought process: Higher cognitive reasoning is replaced by the notion of "balance." Unfortunately, in their minds, balance is nothing more than "he said/she said" with no analysis or context. So journalists reduce each issue to the most simplistic of terms: left vs. right, Republican vs. Democrat, Zimmerman vs. Martin. So if Zimmerman's past record of violent outbursts is relevant, then of course, Martin's truancy is too.
It's absurd on the face of it and Robles deserves the scorn she's getting (although, in fairness, those who threaten her or hurl epithets are out of line) for this poor line of logic. The implication of mentioning Trayvon's problems at school is that this is a person somehow worthy of being suspected of wrong-doing, as if all his bad acts (and please, point to me a teenager without bad acts) were worn like a scarlet A on his hoodie, informing and justifying George Zimmerman's gun-toting paranoia over a teenager walking home.
Except that it doesn't.
Robles should have the intellectual honesty to know that. Whatever teenage bravado words show up on Facebook walls, or when wildly unsubstantiated rumors of stolen property get leaked, all that does is allay the queasiness in the minds of those suffering from racism that they would have also shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Because a kid who misses school, who maybe smokes pot, who tags public property (guess the percentage of teenagers I just described) is asking to be shot, right? Of course they aren't. And nothing—not even standing his ground against the stalking George Zimmerman, if the reports are to be believed—changes that. He was unarmed, walking home with a bag of candy. There is nothing in Neighborhood Watch handbooks or in the screwed up concealed carry/Stand Your Ground laws in Florida that make him eligible for losing his life, no matter what he did last week or two years ago. And that is the point of the outrage.
KURTZ: And, in fact, the day after that suspension story, you reported that Sanford police had wanted to arrest George Zimmerman, but the state's attorney refused, and I can't imagine that people who are sympathetic to the Zimmerman side.
ROBLES: I think one of the things that you are seeing in this case is that people are expecting media to have taken a side. Just like you have some cable networks that have clear -- have taken postures in this, they're expecting the local newspaper to have a posture, to have a side.
I think that that's clearly not our role. Our role is to present the information as it's brought to us.
The thing that doesn't make sense about the Sanford Police Department wanting to file charges against George Zimmerman is that it smacks -- it flies in the face of everything that the police department had said publicly. So it really is just one of those stories that makes you scratch your head.
Again, this is a person with the dumbed-down version of what a journalist is supposed to do. Robles' role is not to serve as a stenographer and simply regurgitate what she's been told. It's to present the truth, however it falls. So while interviewing Zimmerman's family or proxies may offer some juicy newsbites that will grab headlines, it's also incumbent upon a real journalist to do a little digging and reveal to his or her reader that while Zimmerman's father can claim that Trayvon threatened Zimmerman, the fact is that he wasn't there and has no real basis to provide testimony. And if the Sanford Police information was inconsistent, then REPORT IT as such. The police department's mishandling of this case is as big an indictment on racism as Zimmerman's acts.
KURTZ: So what is it like to be in the middle of this maelstrom, to be reporting on a story as inflammatory and as racially charged as this and many people in the national media, as you say, are taking sides? Does that make you extra cautious about of word that you print?
ROBLES: Yes, absolutely. It's actually -- your question is what's it like? It's horrible to be honest with you. I don't like being in the hot seat, and I think very few people do.
I found myself the other night -- well, first of all, you have editors who might try to push you. You know, they say, well, don't you have it? So and so has that story. Can't you get it? So, there's a tremendous amount of pressure.
So, then you find yourself at night writing a story wanting to make the story sound a certain way because that's the way it sounded on a TV station or that's the way it sounded somewhere elsewhere where it was juicy, and you have to ask yourself, OK, wait, what did my source tell me? What do I know?
So you know what Robert Zimmerman told you and you dutifully reported is the truth? You know that tweets from Trayvon's account are probative to this case? THIS is why there is so much furor over Robles' reporting: the chasm between what she "knows" to what the evidence reveals and the reason Trayvon lost his life that rainy night.
Of course, Kurtz offers nothing better. Rather than look at the issue of demonizing the victim, of distributing the talking points of proxies that were not witness to the events, Kurtz jumps further into the muck of a Miami Herald video (of which Robles had no part), of Martin's mother being asked if Trayvon liked to eat chicken. Forced to defend her employers, Robles points out that the video edited out the portion where the mother had volunteered that information and Kurtz nods understandingly that of course, it's the oversensitivity of those people to point out that they could have just as easily edited all reference out rather than leave it in and open for this kind of misunderstanding.
This would be a fascinating discussion of race and media bias on another network, with an abler host. Like for example:
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But in the hands of Howard Kurtz, it's petty, shallow and reinforces all the same tired conservative tropes.