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The Trayvon Martin Story And The Media


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And we turn, now, to the death of Trayvon Martin and how this story has been covered by the mainstream news outlets and by the blogs, and Twitter feeds, and talk shows and cable television stations that now make up a big part of the media.

For a couple of weeks after the shooting in Sanford, Florida, the story received little attention. The release of the 911 tapes vaulted the killing into the most closely followed news story in the country. More on that in a few minutes. And media coverage itself is a big part of this story, from doctored tapes to incendiary tweets and partisan narratives that have taken on lives of their own.

Where do you turn for coverage of this story? And since you're already listening to NPR News, I guess I should say where else do you turn for coverage and why? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the birth of the tape-measure shot. Jane Leavy joins us. But first the media and Trayvon Martin. New York Times columnist David Carr joins us from our bureau in New York, and nice to have you back on the program.

DAVID CARR: Oh, a pleasure to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And you wrote in your column the other day that, quote, "all over the Internet and on cable TV, posses are forming, positions are hardening, and misinformation is flourishing," unquote. I wonder: How did this become such a partisan issue?

CARR: You know, one of the people I interviewed for this story was your other guest today, Ta-Nehisi, who I'm sitting here with. In the middle of our conversation, he said, you know - and you can correct me if I'm saying this wrong, Ta-Nehisi - but in a way, I'm glad the president weighed in, but in a way, a lot of the trouble started there.

If you recall, it had not been such a highly politicized story up until that point, and when the president stepped up and what sounded like very presidential remarks and very heartfelt ones, about he could have had a son - if he had a son he would look like Trayvon. It immediately, sort of, bifurcated the debate into who's right and who's wrong, and politicized in a way that it hadn't before.

And so it went from being a broad cultural and political question, the implications of yet another young black male dying by gun violence - in this case, under very suspicious circumstances - into a wholesale debate over who was right and who was wrong, about a whole raft of issues in our country.

CONAN: The Ta-Nehisi he refers to, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, who is also there with us from our bureau in New York. And I should note that we got word today, that he's the recipient of the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism this year. Congratulations, Ta-Nehisi.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you so much. Thank you.

CONAN: And getting back to David's point, do you think the president's interjection into this, and you have to be fair and say the White House press corps is asking the press secretary, every day, for a comment on this story?

COATES: Right, I think he's in a tough position, particularly because he's dealing with people like me, who initially said he shouldn't comment; and then after he commented, decided he decided pitch perfect; and now, two weeks later, I'm now wishing he hadn't said anything at all. So, I don't know that he could have done anything right.

There's a strong argument that this would've happened anyway. Having said that, I do think one of the unfortunate things is there are people who will take any shot, or any sort of issue to, you know, get at the president. And this became one of those things.

If you recall right before the president made his statement, the Republican candidates had come out and, you know, sent their sympathies to the family of Trayvon Martin. There was really nobody who wanted to stand up and defend George Zimmerman. And then after the president, you know, made his comments - and I think, particularly, you know, speaking from his heart - saying that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon, that's an obvious truth as far as I'm concerned, and it was a sincere and honest truth.

But nothing, nothing drives the present white populace, right wing, crazier than any sort of implication that race might be a factor and that we might still have some work to do in this country.

CONAN: Yet at the same time, you had people on both sides of this story, I have to admit, saying to the president: You intervened in the case of Skip Gates when he was arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and held the famous beer summit. Somebody's killed, and you have nothing to say?

COATES: Yeah, I know, and people did say that, but if you - they backed, I think there are a lot of people, and many of them who would consider themselves friends of the president, who would say that that was a mistake. You know, Obama's in a - it's a very, very tough position, because African-Americans, like any other political audience want to be recognized. They want to feel like their issues are felt, that somebody's, you know, in the White House who's sensitive to their particular pain.

And yet, when the president offers that sort of emotional reassurance - because that's basically what it is when he's talking, it's not necessarily an introduction of a policy or anything - we end up with fake photos of a kid who was shot, in the mainstream press. You find people trolling through, literally, white supremacist websites for any sort of evidence, Ku Klux Klan people hacking this kid's account.

Beholding all of that, it's just - it's utterly devastating and depressing.

CONAN: Well, David Carr, you might expect such things from white supremacists' websites. You don't expect doctored evidence from NBC News.

CARR: No, and it got - once it got engaged as a partisan issue, it also got engaged as a competitive issue, and that drives a lot of great journalism in our country is the desire to beat the other guy or girl to the truth. But you've got to make sure that you're finding the truth.

In this case, I don't think it's like, you know, the Michigan primary. I don't think it really responds to, like, a gaffe on the campaign trail. You can't - when it comes down to black and white issues, and you start talking about choosing sides, it's a very dangerous thing.

And I was talking with friends, including Ta-Nehisi about the mail that came afterwards. And like Ta-Nehisi, I was really, really disappointed by the corrosiveness of the dialogue. It was like hitting the way-back machine in terms of the level of rhetoric, the name-calling, some of the terms.

And the reason that I came to realize that Ta-Nehisi was right in the first place, about the president's very important role in this, is people kept - who were saying other rather bizarre things kept mentioning the Kenyan president. And I thought: OK, that's what pulled these guys off the sidelines and made them crazy is when Obama got involved.

CONAN: Well, we've had people being pulled off the sidelines and being crazy, not about this issue, but about other issues in other administrations. Certainly people were not above calling George W. Bush any number of vitriolic names, and certainly not Bill Clinton, too.

COATES: No, I think that's definitely right, Neal, but one doesn't make the other any less depressing. That's the only thing I would add to that. Even if you say, people on the left maybe called, you know, called President Bush stupid, ignorant, whatever you heard before...

CONAN: Fascist and...

COATES: Fascist, certainly so, not too strongly thrown out there.

CONAN: Yeah, thrown out there, too.

COATES: But I think the insult of - not to, you know, take this to another place, but I think the insult of - the Kenyan insult is a particular insult that, you know, has been lodged at African-Americans, basically since we came here - and that is that you are not truly an American. The victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidency represented, at least for African-Americans, some symbolic level of acceptance.

When you say he's a Kenyan, he's not a Muslim, you know, being code for not being mainstream America, it really stands in an ugly, ugly tradition that goes beyond presidential politics, I think.

CONAN: We want to hear from our listeners today. Where do you turn - where else do you turn for coverage of the Ta-Nehisi - not the...

COATES: Let's hope not. I really hope not.

CONAN: Let's really hope not. I didn't mean to put that out in a tweet, I apologize, and we've reached a settlement.


CARR: Thank you, Spike Lee.

CONAN: But in any case of the Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman incident in Sanford, Florida, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Madeline(ph), Madeline with us from Derby in Kansas.


CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

MADELINE: I just want to say that I mentioned a lady that I - I listen to a lot of country music at home in the car. I listen to more NPR, like all the programs I can. And the main reason I like the station I choose for the country music, is because they don't go on and on with a bunch of news stories that I just find that vilify, you know, both sides, whether it's the president mentioning something and then let the news reaction read into it, or how to describe the person who shot somebody else.

I like NPR because they try to find a balance, or they report this is from NBC News or CNN, because I find that a lot of stuff is just getting put out there to cause more drama. And it's really sad because the facts - I don't know (unintelligible) presented who's really going to know them, even with a 911 tape, because we, in general, weren't there.

There was two people in the dark, and how are we really going to know what really happened? Excuse me, so that's why - I'm not hiding from it or putting my head in the ground, but in the end, it just keeps getting blown out of proportion, and no one's really going to be able to address the fact, because of all the drama or the shock value they're putting out there.

CONAN: David Carr, a couple of points there. We forget, a lot of people are listening to country music or following the NCAA basketball playoffs and not paying a whole lot of attention to this story. Many people are, of course. But the other part is that people flinch away from this vilification and get tired of it.

CARR: Well, I do think that we all contain multitudes, and we can listen to a little George Strait and then tune in, watch Kansas battle it out, and then flip over and toggle, and participate in what has become a small, local incident that has very significant national implications.

What I was reacting to, I guess, as someone who writes about the media, is you have all these crows on a wire, sitting there, poised and ready. And in this case, what they're descending on is the body of a 17-year-old kid. And the idea that people are all trying various sort of media with the point of view, are trying to tear off a chunk, whatever suits them, and take it with them and show what they've got, is just, you know, it's not my first time at the rodeo, but I haven't really seen something like this in a long, long time.

CONAN: David Carr of The New York Times; also with us, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic. Tell us, where do you turn for coverage of the Trayvon Martin story? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Coverage of the killing of Trayvon Martin, online and in the papers, on the air and in Twitter streams has been comprehensive, it's not always been accurate. Think about the misleading, edited tape NBC aired. In less egregious examples, journalists have resorted to nebulous phrases like racial tensions to describe the atmosphere in Florida.

And repeated mention of Martin's hooded sweatshirt has invoked, intentionally or not, stereotypes that cast the victim in a less-than-favorable light. It's tricky enough for seasoned journalists to sort through. So where do you turn, other than NPR, for coverage of this story and why?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. David Carr, "Media Equation" columnist for The New York Times, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic, are our guests. They're at our bureau in New York. Let's see if we can go next to - this is David(ph), David with us from St. Paul.

DAVID: Yeah, Neal, I - first of all, I'm a regular New York Times reader, so I have been following it in that paper. I've been a New York Times reader for a long time. You know, I simply trust their journalistic integrity, for the most part. It's interesting that you say besides NPR.

I do watch MSNBC. I guess my principal program on MSNBC that I do watch would be "The Last Word" with Lawrence O'Donnell. He has experience in the law. He has experience in politics, and I think he has a lot of - it seems to me that his questions of many of the principles involved are very insightful.

But you're exclusionary of NPR is kind of interesting. You know, I'm here in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I've gone down the list on the NPR website of the people who are in the news division. We have a very, very, very small population of African-American journalists at Minnesota Public Radio, in the news division, and I've actually been involved in a - kind of an ongoing dialogue, diatribe, whatever you want to call it.

You know, there's a program on Friday called "The Round Table," and the host has brought in two - in two weeks, she's brought in two hip-hop artists to be on that panel. But we've had three consecutive African-American police chiefs, one of whom has actually participated in projects on racial profiling.

And this news organization, this news division, has yet to put this man on the air. He lives here in St. Paul.

CONAN: And I hear you, David...

DAVID: And it seems to me, it just seems to me that, you know, you're right. I mean, the sources that we choose are interesting, but I think that, you know, to exclude NPR as an outfit that's squeaky clean somehow...

CONAN: I didn't say it to be squeaky clean. I said it at the...

DAVID: I know, I know. I don't know why you're excluding them for consideration, because there are issues. I am progressive, and that is why I lean towards MSNBC and the New York Times.

CONAN: I hear what you're saying, and please also, there is a distinction between MPR, which is Minnesota Public Radio, and NPR, but beyond that...

CARR: Oh, I - make a distinction.

CONAN: Beyond that, we're assuming you listen to NPR for coverage because you're listening to NPR, so let's get beyond that.

DAVID: Yes, I make a distinction between Minnesota Public Radio and National Public Radio, because National Public Radio's news division is very diverse.

CONAN: Let's keep this local argument local, if you don't mind.

DAVID: That's fine.

CONAN: But David, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

DAVID: Absolutely.

CONAN: Joining us now is Amy Mitchell, deputy director of PEW Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

AMY MITCHELL: Happy to be here.

CONAN: And you've been following the narratives as they unfold and measuring this story, which as we mentioned earlier in the broadcast, the first couple of weeks barely registered at all and is now the most closely followed story in the country.

MITCHELL: Yeah, as soon as the 911 tapes were released, the attention on Twitter more than doubled. The attention on blogs more than doubled, and the story skyrocketed in the mainstream press to be the first story of 2012 to actually supersede the election. So we looked across at this coverage, and the findings offer evidence of some of the points that David and Ta-Nehisi have been making.

The story that one got about this case, varied greatly depending on where they turned. We saw very clear differences in the angle of the coverage across these three parts of the media, from Twitter and blogs, and then the segment of the mainstream press that covered this the most, which was the cable and talk radio.

CONAN: Cable and talk radio covered this the most?

MITCHELL: They were. The vast majority of what was in the mainstream press came from cable and talk radio. And we saw, even within that, quite a great variation in terms of the amount. MSNBC covered the story far more than the other - than Fox and also more than CNN, and covered mostly the legalistic questions of the law in Florida - the Stand Your Ground Law that allows for the self defense - as well as the history in that city, where CNN was more a mix of questions about Martin and straight news accounts.

And Fox, while its coverage was much less overall, focused by and large on the defense of Zimmerman.

CONAN: On the defense, so the - what we might expect to be partisan lines in terms of MSNBC and Fox were certainly there.

MITCHELL: You do see that.

CONAN: And as you looked at the dominance of this story in the media, there's an interesting aspect that the media coverage itself, this becomes a meta-story.

MITCHELL: Yeah, exactly, and then if you look at the social media, you see the role and the function that they play, too, which is different, as well. On Twitter, the primary theme there was about the outrage over the killing. The defense of Martin and calls for justice superseded all else. On blogs, they were the area that we looked at that covered the question of the role of race more than any of the three genres, primarily in sense of outrage about what was occurring.

CONAN: There is a sense you get from some people, that the media is driving this story. Can you get any sense of that from the statistics you've seen?

MITCHELL: Well, I think what you see from these statistics is that the media is driving a lot of different stories, depending on where you're turning. And if you're going just for Twitter for that, for the accounts and a conversation and the tenor, you're going to get a very different sense than if you're turning to MSNBC or if you're turning to Fox.

CONAN: That's interesting, David Carr, that these - the atomization of the news media through the agency of the World Wide Web has made it possible to find the tiniest little echo chambers.

CARR: Yeah, I think we're - we generally, sort of, self-assemble into verticals of political and ideological interest. And I and many other people have written about the diminution of the village common, that this place where we get together and argue, where we all have different opinions, but the same set of facts.

It seems to exist less and less. People look at the same bit of videotape, and they say, well, Zimmerman, getting out of that cop car, he looks pretty healthy to me; and other people say oh, notice the dark spot on the top of his head. And so we can't even look at the same things and agree with what we're seeing.

And so I just think it's not brand new, but it's a continuation of a trend that, sort of, has gone on steroids because people are able to program their own media universe.

CONAN: And Amy Mitchell, we have to point out that this story became the number one story is significant. It's the first story this year, I think, according to what I read in your report, to overtake the presidential campaign as the number one story.

MITCHELL: Exactly, so though the media may not have been on the story from day one, the mainstream press, when they did cover it, it became a very large part of the conversation.

CONAN: And as you look forward, does the story seem to have, we say in the news business, legs?

MITCHELL: It's still getting a whole lot of coverage across all these different genres of the media. And one of the other interesting things that we see is, through all these turns of the story, whether it was new evidence about video of Zimmerman or others, the angles that each of these sectors was taking stayed pretty much the same.

CONAN: Really, depending on the prism through which you started to look?

MITCHELL: Exactly.

CONAN: And David Carr, you've described that in your piece the other day, as people taking a position and then backing up their news vehicle to find the facts that might support it.

CARR: Yeah, if I want to – if I think the U.S. blew up the World Trade Center, I can go on the Web and find out that that is true, even though manifestly it is not. And it's great that 1,000 flowers are blooming out on the Web, but not all of them are as fragrant as they perhaps should be.

One thing I'd point out to, sort of, countervail what we've been discussing is, yeah, mainstream media was not paying that much attention. There was loud, steady, insistent coverage in the black press, among black commentators, and I think the fact that eventually came into what is left of the village common is owing to the endurance of people in the journalistic community - and this goes to your earlier caller's point - who happen to be black and maybe are putting the prism of experience on this news.

CONAN: And Ta-Nehisi Coates, there's another element to this. As stories began to emerge about the background of Trayvon Martin - his suspensions from school, then his Twitter feed and indeed his emails started to get leaked out - this literally caused people physical pain, anguish.

COATES: Yeah, it did. I mean, I guess this circles back to what you were saying before. One other thing, just to pick up on what David was just saying, and I'll connect those two points, there are a lot of African-American reporters who - and bloggers, et cetera, columnists - who really cover, you know, these sorts of issues where we have either - where we have young black males shot by police or shot by people who take themselves to be police. And I can't tell you how constant it is. I mean I've been covering this back since I was a college student.

COATES: I had a good friend of mine, French Jones(ph), who was also a college student, who was shot by a police officer. There is a way that that starts to beat you down because by and large these stories are not going to break the way a story of Trayvon - like a Trayvon Martin is going to break. It's going to be you. You're going to be lonely. You're going to be out on an island. And I knew about this story for probably about a week and a half before I finally got it up in me to go ahead and write about it. I was consuming news about it.

And part of why it's depressing, because - because even if it does break, what has happened here, where you have, again, you know, a violent white supremacist hacking, you know, a 17-year-old kid's email, where you have mainstream publications like Business Insider pulling fake imagery, which they did apologize for, alleged to be Trayvon Martin, it's just depressing. There's a sense that people like me and African-American writers in general go looking for instances of - that we go out looking for it, like it makes us feel better and verifies our worldview. And it's just - it's completely false. It really, really is. It just beats you down after a while.

CONAN: Yet David Carr, one has to realize, in a story once it's reached this level of public interest, there is nothing in the past of Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman that is not going to come to light.

CARR: I don't know if that's precisely true. It seems a lot like a case in - it reminds me of a rape case where...

COATES: Yeah, exactly.

CARR: ...at a certain point, it's like, well, what was she wearing?

COATES: Right.

CARR: What was her background? What was her dating history? What - let's look at her social media. You know, she seems a little slippery, a little loose. And I don't think that this - you know, no matter how you paint it, he was a victim. And we do put victims in unjust...

CONAN: I didn't say it was fair. I just said it's not unexpected that every detail is going to be ferreted out one way or another.

CARR: I just – I just think any 17-year-old - if I had to look back at the 17-year-old version of myself, you know, I'd come off looking like a knucklehead. There's just no doubt about it.

CONAN: I think that's probably true of a lot of us, certainly the person sitting in this chair. We're talking about the media and the Trayvon Martin case. Our guest, David Carr, you just heard him, the Media Equation columnist for The New York Times. Also with us, Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic; and Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get John(ph) on the line, John calling us from Washington, D.C.

JOHN: Yes. Hi. Hi, Neal, and also Mr. Carr and Mr. Coates. I've been reading the blog entries from Mr. Coates about this case, and it's been fascinating. So thank you for that. I'm calling because I wanted to - in addition to, I think, the more kind of establishment publications such as The New York Times and everything, I think The New Yorker magazine has been doing a pretty fine job of reporting this case, not the weekly publication, but more so the daily kind of updates that they provide on their website.

And I'm specifically talking about one article that they published, I believe it was about a little over a week ago, that drew a very clear parallel between this Trayvon Martin incident and Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. And I think - I'm a high school English teacher in the D.C. area, and I teach at a very overwhelmingly African-American high school, where 99 percent of our student population is African-American. And showing them that article really led me to see the outrage that this has caused not only amongst our school, but also just, I think, the - I think their families, their communities.

And it's been a really, really positive discussion that that article helped open up. And now I have kids come to me and saying, like, here's a new article I found. They're emailing me and showing their interest to me. So I'll take your guests' response off the air, but I just wanted to say The New Yorker and - they've been doing a very good job, especially with that clear parallel that they drew with Trayvon and Emmett Till. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. And - go ahead.

COATES: So this is like the tough thing about assessing cases like this and assessing the country for those of us who write about race. I got into - you know, when you get into a debate and people are telling you that a kid like Trayvon Martin - 16, just turned 17 this year - is not a child, was not actually a child, that he was not actually a boy, you do, you know, sort of see a historical parallel.

But at the same time, I mean, even, you know, going with all the complaints I lodged today, the email that David got, George Zimmerman, whatever he is, is not the equivalent of the people who - the two men who dragged Emmett Till - sorry, get an emotional thing about this - who beat Emmett Till, tied him to a fan and dropped him into a river. There are important distinctions about what this country is today and what it was back then.

So even as we, you know, lament what we are not, you have to say that there has been some progress. There's not enough progress to not, you know, sort of beat us down and make us depressed, but there are, I think, really, really, really important differences. You couldn't find a jury to convict Emmett Till's killers on the law as it was. Now, we have questions about what the law is in Florida, et cetera, but I think those are different and, frankly, much better questions that were asked in the day.

CONAN: We're not going to have time to get to all of our callers, but some of them who I can see on the screen - John Stewart(ph) says: Jeff in Platteville, Wisconsin doesn't lie to me. Judy(ph) in San Jose says: BET, I'm white and don't normally go there. Daniel in Jonesboro, Arkansas: Color lines for historical perspective. Charles in Houston, Texas: Democracy now for its independence. Adam in Provo, Utah: Fox, Atlantic, broad spectrum. Sam in Stockton, California: Facebook, lots(ph) of justice for Trayvon. Before we go, Amy Mitchell, that's a theme that you saw on Facebook and particularly on Twitter.

MITCHELL: And particularly on Twitter, we did. And it's harder to follow the conversation on Facebook as much as it ends up being private behind people's walls, but absolutely. And I think, you know, one of the things you see from this is clearly there is some positive that's come out of the role of citizens in the media process and the involvement in the dialogue and discussion that can go back and forth. But also, when there's so much information that's out there, the role - the job the citizen has to try to sift through all of that and try to make sense and parse through what's true and what's not true and dig further into what's being said to make sense of it all is huge.

CONAN: Amy Mitchell of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, thanks very much. Our thanks also to Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic. And again, congratulations on the prize you won today.

COATES: Thank you.

CONAN: And David Carr of The New York Times, the Media Equation columnist, thanks for coming in, David.

CARR: Oh, a pleasure, Neal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.