By now the basic story is too well known to require extensive recapitulation. NBC News committed grievous and unprofessional reporting when it took this conversation involving George 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.”
The 911 officer responded saying, “OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?”
Which it then turned into this:
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good … he looks black.”
For which NBC then apologized in a news release to its viewers:
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
Here is my free advice to NBC. First, hire a lawyer to negotiate a handsome settlement in a libel case. Second, fire the people who are responsible for the perverse apology, which only compounds the original mistake.
Let me take these one at a time:
First, the abbreviated statement is clear defamation by the standard definition that covers false statement of facts intended to damage the reputation of the plaintiff. It is not that the words quoted are false. It is worse than that. They were quoted out of context to give them the opposite appearance of their obvious and intended meaning. The quotation shows a report, followed by an inquiry, followed by an answer that was truncated to make it appear that Martin was followed because he was black. Those willful and knowing changes meet the most exacting standard of actual malice that could be raised against a media defendant. They are sufficient to support claims for actual and punitive damages.
The apology makes it worse. The first point to note is that the apology was not a correction of the mistake. If NBC were to make an actual correction of the mistake, it would have to put out the full version of the story and correct the earlier misimpression. Second, the correction would have to be made in the same way and with the same level of attention of the original story. Put otherwise, it would have to be put on the air with the same level of publicity and the original report.
Next, any correction has to be truthful. This feeble pabulum was not. No, there was not some “error” in production for which there are always some (weak) excuses. This was a deliberate fabrication that did, and was intended to, fan the flames of racial discord. In my view, the evasive, incomplete, and underpublicized “apology” aggravates the original libel by refusing to acknowledge NBC’s internal breakdown in basic news decorum.
The betting here is that NBC News will not have the courage to come clean. For an organization that lives by its own (tattered) reputation, it should take my free advice: make a clean breast of the situation right now before the scandal grows.