Commentary: Today Show should do better in Trayvon Martin 911 call editing scandal

The Miami HeraldApril 10, 2012 

When The Washington Post discovered reporter Janet Cooke had made up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, it printed a 14,000-word investigation of what happened by its ombudsman. “She was a one-in-a-million liar,” admitted Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.

When The New York Times learned reporter Jayson Blair had faked dozens of stories, it published a 7,200-word story on its front page labeling his serial falsifications “a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

And when CBS News was accused of relying on forged documents in a story accusing President George W. Bush of shirking service in Vietnam, it commissioned a 224-page report by a panel of outside experts. They concluded that a “myopic zeal” had “led many to disregard some fundamental journalistic principles."

But NBC, caught red-handed last month in the dirty editing of police tapes to make George Zimmerman look like a racist? Two sentences, blandly conceding “an error made in the production process” and a vague promise of taking “the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future.”

NBC’s statement, issued late last week as the nation took off on Easter vacation, was a masterpiece of understated euphemism for a startling act of editorial mendacity and malice. During a news report on The Today Show, the network played what it said was a conversation between police dispatchers and Zimmerman, the volunteer neighborhood watchman who a few minutes later would fatally shoot a black teenager.

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black,” Zimmerman says on the Today Show tape. The equation is simple: “Black” equals “up to no good” equals Zimmerman is a racist stalker.

But it turns out that quote was stitched together like Frankenstein. Listening to the conversation before NBC’s editing, you get a very different picture.

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.”

That is, the police dispatcher, not Zimmerman, raised the question of race, and Zimmerman — watching from a distance on a rainy night — offered only a provisional judgment. By chopping three sentences out of the tape, NBC turned an innocent answer to a dispatcher’s question into a damning racist indictment.

But the network continues to gaily insist that its editing was just a routine “error,” like a misspelled name in an on-screen graphic — “a mistake and not a deliberate act to misrepresent the phone call,” as NBC News President Steve Capus told Reuters in his only comment beyond the official statement.

Perhaps. I’m generally sympathetic to news organizations when they say something is a mistake rather than a conspiracy; after working in newsrooms for 45 years, I know we can barely conspire to get the next day’s paper out, much less to advance a covert social agenda.

But if the editing was just an innocent screw up, why won’t NBC tell us who did it? Or how it got on the air? (If I were a producer on Today, my first question upon hearing that tape would have been, “How come nobody else has this?”) NBC won’t even confirm reports from several other news agencies that a producer was fired last week over the editing.

NBC’s silent-as-a-tomb approach practically begs for a cynical interpretation. For instance, that any serious look at what happened on Today might lead to questions about editorial linkages between NBC News and its mongrel cousin MSNBC, where notorious race huckster Al Sharpton has a show. Sharpton is on the air covering the Zimmerman case one minute, out in the streets demanding his arrest the next.

Funny thing about MSNBC. Shortly after the mal-edited Zimmerman tape was aired on Today, MSNBC’s website featured a story using the bogus quote: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good . . . he looks black.” But notice the use of ellipses. MSNBC knew the quote had been edited, even though — supposedly — nobody at NBC did.

How did that happen, Mr. Capus? Is that what you don’t want us asking questions about?

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service