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Thoughts on TV and social network handling of Zimmerman verdict

By Alan Pergament

My revised blog on HBO’s "The Newsroom" on Friday included a prediction on the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial.

I noted that Aaron Sorkin's series -- which starts its season tonight -- will eventually address the Trayvon Martin case and added:

"I used to cover criminal trials and learned long ago that it is foolish to predict what juries will do. But from the TV coverage and analysis, I have to agree with those who have said this is a textbook case of reasonable doubt. If it were a 'Law & Order' episode, Zimmerman would get off and the prosecutor played by Sam Waterston -- now of 'The Newsroom' -- would be suitably disgusted in the final shot of the show."

That's pretty much what happened late Saturday night after the six-woman jury acquitted Zimmerman and he was set free.

Facebook and Twitter played Waterson's part, with many people going on the social websites to understandably express their disgust.

My immediate thought was, "did they watch or read anything about the trial?"

I was stunned by only one thing -- that CNN analyst Sunny Hostin, a Binghamton graduate, was stunned by the verdict. However, she is a former federal prosecutor and was the one analyst during the trial that seemed to think it was going the prosecution's way.

ABC, CBS and NBC all broke into regular programming to carry the verdict, but only ABC stayed with the post-verdict reaction for an hour.

I spent most of the night and parts of the early morning watching CNN, which ironically enough was preempting a show called "Crimes of the Century." I found analyst Loni Coombs to be among the most astute. Coombs said that while in their gut people may have concluded that Zimmerman had done
something wrong, the evidence just wasn't there to convict because there was too much reasonable doubt.

That's pretty much what I told a close friend Saturday afternoon over lunch. While my heart and life experience may have said that Zimmerman was profiling Martin and that led to the 17-year-old black youth's death, I don't know what was in his heart and my brain told me that the case wasn't proven and I would have found it extremely difficult to convict him even of manslaughter.

I also told my friend about a case I covered decades ago when a local jury acquitted a man of a crime even though his own attorney admitted he was guilty of a lesser charge.

Afterwards, I was told that jurors looked at the defendant like their son or brother and didn't want him to go to prison. If jurors in the Zimmerman case ever speak -- if they haven't by the time this is published -- I wonder if they will say something similar.

One of the more interesting things during CNN's coverage was the shots that defense attorney Mark O’Mara's took at the media, which he said was one of the systems that Zimmerman was fighting against.

In answer to the final question of his press conference, O'Mara said he felt that the media took a narrative that negatively portrayed Zimmerman at face value and never discovered who he really was. "You guys had a lot to do with it," said O’Mara of making his client a villain.

O'Mara is a very good lawyer but he didn't seem to understand one basic truth of the media that the movie "Absence of Malice" portrayed so well -- it reports what people say, it doesn't report the truth.

CNN’'s Piers Morgan and Zimmerman's brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., and O’Mara also wrongly concluded that Zimmerman was found "innocent."

In the judicial system, you are either found guilty or not guilty. According to newspaper legend, the word "innocent" was substituted by the print media for not guilty to avoid mistakes when "not" was accidentally dropped from a sentence.

Zimmerman's brother did a very good job debating Morgan on the case and defending his brother against media perceptions. He certainly was stronger than Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, who seemed to be trying to put a happy face on the verdict that her office lost. Perhaps her disposition was designed to quell any possible post-verdict reaction in the street that would have possibly been spread by any outrage on the social networks. But Corey's behavior still seemed a bit odd.

A strongly-worded NAACP statement condemning the verdict was probably expected, though it probably would have been wise to delay its response for a night to avoid provoking unwanted consequences.

On the other hand, one of the most impressive voices of reason was Natalie Jackson, one of the lawyers speaking on behalf of the Martin family.

While her emotions were clearly on display after a verdict that was undoubtedly disappointing to her, Jackson eloquently talked about all the positives that have come out of discussions about race in this case and added that in the long run that could save future Trayvon Martins.

We can only hope that prediction will be right.

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Television | TV news
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