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Photo composite (Credit: WFIU Public Radio, Zimmerman Mugshot via Fotopedia)

Your mother always told you that saying sorry can repair a lot of damage. NBC apparently forgot this important lesson.

Lawyers for George Zimmerman, who is charged in the February shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, filed a reckless defamation lawsuit yesterday. His lawsuit charges that in its coverage of the case, NBC News attempted to “create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain.”

The papers go on to say:

“To this day, the defendants have never apologized to Zimmerman for deliberately portraying him as a hostile racist who targeted Martin due to his race…”

During the original March 19, 2012 broadcast, NBC News aired a heavily edited version of the 911 call Zimmerman made asking for police assistance. The suit argues that the edit altered the recording to make it seem to viewers that Zimmerman’s statements were racist.

Different versions of the recordings with different edits were aired five separate times on Today and NBC Nightly News. Here are the different edits that NBC aired:

NBC Nightly News, Pete Williams reporting March 19, 2012

Audio of Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband, and he’s a black male.”

NBC Today, Lilia Luciano reporting March 20,2012 7am and 9am

Audio of Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband, and he’s a black male.”

NBC Today, Lilia Luciano reporting, March 20, 2012

Audio of Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good… He looks black.”

NBC Today, Ron Allen reporting, March 27, 2012

ZIMMERMAN: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good… He looks black.”
However, the full transcription of the 911 call is very 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 dispatcher:  ‘OK, is he white, black or Hispanic?’

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“Zimmerman: ‘He looks black.’”

NBC appeared to take this “oldest form of yellow journalism,” as described in the lawsuit, very seriously. They issued a press release apologizing April 3, 2012, for what they described as an “error.”

“During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret. We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers.”

On April 5, NBC fired an unnamed Miami-based producer and Lilia Luciano, a news correspondent who was involved in the airing of an edited version of the audio tape on NBC’s Today.  Miami’s NBC affiliate WTVJ-6 also played on-air an edited clip and fired reporter Jeff Burnside for his part. Both Lauciano and Burnside are named in the lawsuit as well as Ron Allen who aired a story that said Zimmerman used a racial epithet during the 911 phone call.

Despite all of this, NBC failed to issue an on-air correction or apologize directly to Zimmerman. This might prove particularly problematic  for NBC because local statutes in Florida offer considerable protection to media for “errors” by limiting lawsuits to actual damages not punitive but this is only if they actually apologize to the injured party.  The statute reads:

“If it appears upon the trial that said article or broadcast was published in good faith; that its falsity was due to an honest mistake of the facts; that there were reasonable grounds for believing that the statements in said article or broadcast were true; and that, within the period of time specified in subsection (2), a full and fair correction, apology, or retraction was……….. in the case of a broadcast, the correction, apology, or retraction was broadcast at a comparable time, then the plaintiff in such case shall recover only actual damages.”

The statute also says:

“Full and fair correction, apology, or retraction shall be made: In the case of a broadcast or a daily or weekly newspaper or periodical, within 10 days after service of notice.”

It is too late for NBC to correct this particular “error.”

NBC promised “We intend to vigorously defend our position in court” but statements made by its own president Steve Capus will probably not help them.  Capus spoke by phone with New York Times columnist David Carr. On April 22, 2012, Carr reported that he expressed his assessment of the situation to Capus:

“Even though Mr. Capus had personally investigated the error, issued two statements on the matter, taken disciplinary action against six employees and led a series of meetings to remind people of best practices, nobody on the “Today” show had explained what happened, or apologized for it, to the audience. That seemed wrong to me. A network’s primary contract is with the viewers who tune in to its shows every day.”

Capus then responded  “You’re probably right,” Capus then went on to say:

“The reality is that we didn’t try to hide from it. We did an awful lot of work after it happened. We did an exhaustive investigation, I did interviews with a lot of publications to get the message out, but we probably should have done it on our own air.”

Broadcast news air time is clearly a limited resource and as Carr says “it would be impractical to correct every small error.”

However, there must be exceptions to this. When a television news program broadcasts something that is so unethical as to prompt an internal investigation that leads to several people being terminated, it would seem that sacrificing 10 seconds of air time to apologize is a fair price to pay.

NBC apparently did not agree and now that Zimmerman is suing for “damages in excess of the jurisdictional limit,” it will be interesting to see what those ten seconds will end up costing NBC.

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Zimmerman Sues NBC News over Doctored 911 Calls, Fires Staff but Does Not Say ‘Sorry’

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One Response

  1. Winghunter says:

    It Wasn’t Just The Audio That The Media Played With:
    NBC, ABC & CBS (among others) ignore, block out/hide or just cut out the video clip showing the officer inspecting the back of Zimmerman’s head while at police station in order to make the false claim, “Look, no injuries!’

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