Conservative Media Smears Trayvon Martin

Conservative Media Smears Trayvon Martin

Conservative Media Smears Trayvon Martin

Right wing commentators are seizing on irrelevant details of Martin’s life to justify his death.


Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/HO, Martin Family Photos)

As someone who covers conservatives full time, there is little left for them to do or say that can actually shock me. But in the last few days they have managed to do it by impugning the late Trayvon Martin with misleading and dishonest attacks on his character and justifications for his murder. They’ve also eagerly played to racist whites by perversely accusing African-American politicians of trying to capitalize on Martin’s tragic murder merely because they’ve expressed appropriate concern over it.

For those who don’t know, Martin, 17, was walking to his father’s house in Sanford, Florida, when a local busybody named George Zimmerman called the police to report his unfounded suspicions that Martin was up to no good. Even though the dispatcher told Zimmerman to leave the matter to the police, who were on their way, Zimmerman followed Martin, got into a confrontation with him and shot him. Liberals and civil rights advocates across the country have been outraged that Zimmerman is not being charged in Martin’s death because he claims he was acting in self-defense and Florida has a “stand your ground law,” promoted by national conservative groups such as the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, that allows one to commit murder in self-defense.

Even if you support a right to bear arms and to act in self-defense, the conduct of local law enforcement authorities has been obviously wrong. It would be different if Martin had approached Zimmerman, attempted to mug him and then been shot. But Zimmerman’s own account, bolstered by recorded phone calls, is that he followed Martin and started the encounter. Even if Martin physically harmed or threatened Zimmerman in response, the culpability would be Zimmerman’s in this case.

Most of the conservative media have not only sided with Zimmerman but smeared the dead boy. On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera suggested that Martin had invited trouble by wearing a hooded sweatshirt, as millions of law-abiding young Americans, myself included, regularly do. He later appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to defend himself from charges that he was blaming the victim. Bill O’Reilly commiserated with Geraldo that he was being unfairly maligned, just as O’Reilly had been when he said that a young woman who goes out and gets drunk invites whatever misfortune may subsequently befall her, including murder.

Other conservatives have gone to shocking and disgusting lengths to impugn Martin. The Daily Caller—a lowbrow smear machine run by the overgrown preppie Tucker Carlson—published Martin’s Twitter feed. The DC doesn’t explain why Martin’s tweets are even remotely relevant, because they are not. But the implication, just like reports that Martin was suspended from school for possessing an empty bag with traces of marijuana, is that by being a normal teenager he was a bad person who deserved what happened to him.

Some of the worst actors of all in this affair have been the local police, working in concert with lazy or biased reporters. They have taken Zimmerman’s word as fact, notwithstanding his enormous incentive to lie and the fact that the other witness, Martin, is dead at Zimmerman’s hand and unable to respond. Consider this sensationalized, one-sided, irresponsible lead from the Orlando Sentinel on Monday: 

With a single punch, Trayvon Martin decked the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who eventually shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old, then Trayvon climbed on top of George Zimmerman and slammed his head into the sidewalk, leaving him bloody and battered, law-enforcement authorities told the Orlando Sentinel.

That is the account Zimmerman gave police, and much of it has been corroborated by witnesses, authorities say.

It opens as if Martin beating up Zimmerman were established fact, when it is actually merely Zimmerman’s account. The police have repeatedly cited, and in this case leaked, Zimmerman’s side of the story as justification for their inaction. (Lawrence O’Donnell gave the Sentinel reporter an appropriate dressing down on MSNBC Monday night.)

Martin’s mother is understandably suspicious that the police are also behind the revelation of his school suspension.

Meanwhile, the conservative media has been eagerly lapping up these reports to justify Martin’s killing.

Much of the right wing media has sided with Zimmerman on starkly racial grounds. Consider this blog post from Red State:

The left is in full spin mode now that the crazies of the New Black Panther Party has assumed the spotlight in the Trayvon Martin controversy. They are in fact an arm of the Democrat party though. It’s just another example of how out of touch the Dem party has become to average folks. The NBP are embraced until of course they do something as crazy as putting a bounty on someone’s head until all the evidence is presented. The more we hear about this story the more evidence mounts that Zimmerman acted in self defense. He did have a broken nose and a head injury but all that evidence is brushed aside by the lefties. A witness stated that he was the one screaming for help but that is all but ignored by the left and race hustlers alike.

“Average folks,” apparently, are white people, not families like Martin’s. (If you’re wondering what the obscure, marginal New Black Panther Party has to do with this case, the answer is nothing. They’ve offered a $10,000 bounty on Zimmerman, and right wingers are gladly pretending that this has something to do with everyone else who is concerned that Zimmerman may be getting away with murder.)

Even conservatives who have taken a reasonable stance on Martin’s murder itself are being deliberately blind about the larger implications. For example, multiple writers at National Review, while admitting Martin’s killing was unjustified, have complained that African-American politicians are noting that Martin was black and his assailant is Latino. “I do not think it is wise for the president to further inject race into the incident, when it’s not quite clear what role, if any, skin color played,” tsked NR’s Robert VerBruggen.

Veteran race-baiter Newt Gingrich concurred, calling Obama’s expression of concern for the role race may have played in Martin’s killing “disgraceful.” In a naked appeal to racist white sentiment disguised as a plea for color-blindness, Gingrich asked, absurdly, “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be OK because it didn’t look like him?” Gingrich’s comments, just like Zimmerman’s claims, were uncritically recycled on conservative Web sites such as World Net Daily.

Other conservative commentators have attacked Obama on grounds so bizarre it’s hard to tell whether they are being serious. Rush Limbaugh claimed on Tuesday that the Obama campaign “is exploiting the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in order (obviously, here) to secure votes (as though he needs them) from African-Americans.” How are they doing that? By “selling hoodies that say, ‘Obama 2012’ on them.” Surely Limbaugh must know that every campaign raises money through selling campaign gear. If Martin had been wearing a t-shirt or baseball cap would Limbaugh accuse Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney of trying to capitalize on Martin’s death?   

Conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas argues that Martin’s killing should be viewed no differently than any time a black teenager is murdered. “In light of the number of young black men who are too often gunned down on America’s streets, what’s different about the Trayvon Martin case?” Thomas rhetorically demanded. “Would Al Sharpton have made the trip to Florida if Martin had been white? Not likely.” Thomas goes on to impugn Sharpton for his role in the case of Tawana Brawley, a black woman who falsely accused white cops of raping her. While Sharpton certainly owes the cops a long overdue apology, it’s utterly irrelevant to this case. So is the question of why Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don’t comment on every teenager’s murder. What such complaints ignore is that the problem isn’t merely whether Zimmerman followed and harassed Martin because of Martin’s race. When one black teenager shoots another, and admits to it, the police arrest him and prosecutors charge him. This case is different because the police aren’t doing that. No one—except a willfully blind conservative partisan—thinks the police would behave the same way if the victim and shooter’s races were reversed. 

VerBruggen also wrote of Martin’s marijuana suspension, “This does lend credence to one small aspect of Zimmerman’s story—that Martin caught his attention because the 17-year-old looked like he was ‘on drugs.’ No drugs were found on Martin’s person, but so far as I can tell, the autopsy report has not been made public.” I’m guessing VerBruggen is not part of the two-thirds of American adults under the age of 54 who have tried marijuana. Otherwise, he’d know how ridiculous he sounds when suggesting that because someone was once caught with an empty bag containing trace amounts of the substance that they were likely to have been visibly “on drugs” while walking down the street. What does one look like when they may have recently smoked a little weed? Like this

The New York Post has been especially eager to cater to racist white sentiments, writing on their front page Tuesday that Martin’s death has been “hijacked” by “race hustlers.” They’re right about that, but wrong about identifying a group of black Democrats as the hustlers in question. The only race hustlers using Martin’s death to their political advantage are white Republicans such as Limbaugh and Gingrich.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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