Special Report

The Politics of Tragedy

For Obama and the liberal media, Trayvon Martin is a character in an election-year narrative.

By 3.26.12

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President Obama declared in a press conference Friday that Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old African-American student fatally shot by Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in February, looks like his own hypothetical son. "If I had a son," Obama declared, "he would look like Trayvon." The racial implication of the president's statement was clear. The man who gained national prominence with a 2004 Democratic Convention speech calling for cultural unity stood in the Rose Garden of the White House and furthered the racial tension surrounding Martin's shooting. In a politicized national debate in which the Washington Post accused Zimmerman of "murder" and mainstream media writers call for the man's arrest, President Obama opined on an issue on which he -- like everyone else -- is not fully informed.

"Every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this and everybody pulls together, federal state and local, to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened" Obama said. According to the Los Angeles Times, Obama spoke to the Rev. Al Sharpton on the phone Thursday, and aides believed that they discussed the shooting.

Not to be outdone, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney went a step further. "What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy," Romney said. "There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity." According to our potential future president, "reassuring the public" must factor into a criminal investigation.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, the public has heard nothing but the media's politicized commentary, wrapped into a narrative written before the facts of the case were fully disclosed. It's a narrative that exploits Martin's death from all angles. Some media commentators want to use the shooting to help repeal the "Stand Your Ground" self-defense laws enacted in states across the country primarily by Republican lawmakers. Others, like well-funded professional activists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, stand to gain from pushing the idea that police officers are uniformly racist and that shootings of African-American men are implicitly condoned.

Sanford, Florida police chief Bill Lee announced his temporary resignation Thursday amid calls from activists like Sharpton, who declared, "We did not come here for a temporary leave of absence. We came here for an arrest." Lee said he feared that his participation in the investigation would be a "distraction" from the case, given the public criticism directed at him. Lee's job, of course, was not to analyze the merits of Florida's stand your ground law but rather to investigate suspects based on the laws on record. He said that his investigation was "color blind." According to Lee, no evidence exists to dispute Zimmerman's claim that he shot Martin in self-defense. "Until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don't have the grounds to arrest him," Lee said. He also said, "There is evidence that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense." Lee's statements, based on still-undisclosed details from his firsthand police investigation, was widely condemned by media commentators who have not seen the evidence Lee was referring to.

THE MEDIA OUTLINED its narrative early. Initial reports claimed that a "white man" had chased down and murdered an African-American teenager. These reports echoed similar articles, in liberal publications like Salon, that a suspected right-wing fundamentalist was responsible for last week's murder of Jewish children in France. Of course, within hours it was revealed that the French shooter was an al Qaeda sympathizer who had escaped from an Afghan prison. So the liberal narrative on the French shooting was stifled and the story faded from top-headline billing.

Factual developments also threatened the media's Trayvon Martin narrative. It was revealed that Martin's shooter was not fully "white," but in fact had a Peruvian mother. Yet still the narrative went forward, with liberal journalists suddenly writing that "Regardless of whether Zimmerman is white, Latino, or black, this case shows that our society continues to hold stereotypes against young black males." In light of facts, the media simply shifted ideas around to achieve their same intended effect.

With the narrative established, the press piled on sensory details.

America heard reports that Zimmerman uttered a racial epithet, "f---ing coons," in his 911 call prior to the shooting. This detail has not been confirmed. In fact, it is nearly impossible, in listening to audio of the call, to identify what Zimmerman said at that moment. But that didn't stop liberal commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates from offering his personal opinion at the Atlantic: "The question at hand is whether Zimmerman muttered 'f---ing coons" during the 911 call minutes before he killed Trayvon Martin. Several people whom I respect -- all of them black actually -- don't hear it. When I listened, I heard it immediately and in this CNN account, I hear it clear as day." Coates then explained that his perception of the call provides "the makings of a federal case" against Zimmerman.

Here Coates expressed moral outrage and voiced a call for action on an issue with which he is not personally acquainted as a witness or as a firsthand reporter. In the Trayvon Martin case, his activist commentary is not merely directed at Zimmerman. It's also directed at Lee, who, according to Coates, must lose his livelihood for not arresting Zimmerman. "This investigation wasn't one," Coates wrote. "It was a sham, an homage to the bad old days of Southern justice. Lee should resign." Coates presumably wrote these words from New York, where he lives and works many miles from the investigation taking place in Florida. He did not interview anyone involved in the investigation or conduct any original reporting for his opinion piece.

In typical fashion, any reported facts that seemed to complicate the mainstream media's narrative were immediately distorted, and any journalists reporting them were viciously attacked.

The Blaze reported, via the International Business Times, that Martin was on suspension for 10 days from his high school at the time of the shooting. This report seemed to contradict a statement by Martin's English teacher to the Orlando Sentinel claiming that Martin was on suspension for five days for "tardiness." The Blaze article cited Martin's school's disciplinary policy, pointing out that "tardiness" is not one of the serious -- and in many cases violent -- offenses warranting a ten-day suspension. Rather than investigating the reported discrepancy in the length and nature of Martin's suspension, the Huffington Post smeared the Blaze and condemned any reportage on Martin as it relates to the incident.

"The Blaze, Site Founded By Glenn Beck, Insinuates That Slain Teen Trayvon Martin Was Troublemaker" blared the headline from Huffington reporter Gene Demby. "The sentiment that Martin was up to no good was echoed in the comments of the post, but they were less extreme than those found on the website of Fox News," Demby wrote. Here Demby employed the common liberal tactic of quoting a website's anonymous commenters in order to criticize the website itself. Demby also condemned Fox News for running fewer segments on the Martin tragedy than either CNN or MSNBC.

Nevertheless, the Blaze continued printing uncomfortable facts that have been ignored by the mainstream media, reporting that a witness says he saw Martin attack Zimmerman -- testimony that lends credence to the police's claim that screams for help heard on a 911 call were those of Zimmerman.

MEANWHILE, LIBERAL Washington Post opinion columnist Alexandra Petri attempted to make the shooting emotional, rather than factual. She wrote, "Fortunately for the fearful, Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law has their interests at heart. To get away with murder, you need not prove that anyone intended you harm before you shot him. All you need to prove is that you were very, very afraid." In actuality, according to the New York Times, the Florida stand your ground law requires that "he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another." The term "harm" is in the very wording of the law itself. Petri's willful distortion comes in the same month that she admitted to using falsehoods about Rush Limbaugh's advertisers in a column smearing the conservative talk radio host. Limbaugh called her March 8 distortion an "out-and-out lie." Petri was not fired from the Post for either fabrication.

Privileged students at Petri's alma mater also made their opinions known. Harvard students protested outside the entrance to the Harvard Square T station calling for Zimmerman's arrest and criticizing police officers across the country for supposedly profiling minorities. The Harvard Crimson happily reported that police chief Lee was stepping down due to activist outcry. Of course, the class element of this issue -- of Ivy League students and Ivy League-educated media pundits attacking a police officer for doing his job without rushing to judgment -- has been lost in the opinion-based coverage. After all, this isn't an issue about class. This is an issue about race.

At a rally in Sanford, the Rev. Al Sharpton, an MSNBC host who gained national celebrity in 1987 touting fraudulent rape allegations against an Assistant District Attorney in New York -- resorted to divisive, race-baiting rhetoric: "Trayvon could have been any one of our sons, he could have been any one of us. Trayvon represents a reckless disregard for our lives that we've seen for too long." The Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "Blacks are under attack" and that President Obama's election "has triggered tremendous backlash" against the African-American community. "Where there is no justice, there will be no peace" tweeted Minister Louis Farrakhan. "Soon and very soon, the law of retaliation may very well be applied." ThinkProgress condemned the Drudge Report's linking to Farrakhan's tweet as a "disgusting" attempt to stoke conservative fears -- but made no mention of the violent rhetoric employed by Farrakhan himself. The New Black Panthers, meanwhile, offered a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman's "capture."

And in the midst of this hyper-politicized mess, President Obama stood in the Rose Garden of the White House and made a racially charged statement to appease the activist left. With the facts of the case still largely unknown, a young college student and neighborhood watchman's life hanging in the balance, and a police officer's career and reputation on the line, the President of the United States buckled to the activist screams and played his part in the narrative. "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon." Now all of a sudden George Zimmerman didn't just shoot a suspended teenager, purportedly in self-defense. He shot the president's son. Think those words won't influence a jury?

WILL WE EVER KNOW what really happened in the struggle between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman? Will we ever find out if Martin "jumped" Zimmerman, as the watchman claimed, forcing the half-white, half-Latino watchman to act in self-defense? Will we ever find out if Trayvon Martin was actually suspended from school for something more serious, more violent, than mere tardiness, as some in the press have reported? Will we ever see the evidence that Lee claims may exonerate Zimmerman? Probably not. These details don't matter. Nowadays, the narrative gets written in the minutes after a tragedy occurs, and anyone who stands in the narrative's way, asking questions and trying to determine facts, will be destroyed. After all, Al Sharpton has marches to organize. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alexandra Petri have columns to write. MSNBC has ad dollars to gain. And President Obama has an election to win -- if this is the way he thinks he can win it.

Newt Gingrich, God Bless his soul, said the only sane thing in this entire sad episode in human history. "What the president said is disgraceful," said Newt. "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? That's just nonsense dividing this country up." Newt was instantly smeared for his comments by the Huffington Post.

But I bet police chief Lee sat in his living room and nodded along when he heard those words. A veteran cop who tried to investigate a potential crime based on the laws on record, with no regard for the activists screaming in his ear, Lee will not be going into work today. If I was him, I'd be nodding right along with Newt Gingrich. A silent majority in living rooms around the country are likely nodding right along with both of them.

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About the Author

Patrick Howley is a staff writer for the The Daily Caller.