The Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman episode is escalating into a full-scale ethics train wreck at a frightening pace, pulling in participants and bystanders alike, and threatening to become a national catastrophe. Usually such things need to play out until all the carnage is exhausted, but this train wreck is different. Too many parties, including the media, are behaving irresponsibly, given the sensitivity of the issues at hand and the possible worse case scenarios. If the train can’t be stopped, it desperately needs to be slowed down.
At this point, however, I wonder if it can. The activists now driving the action obviously no longer care about little nuances like facts, fairness, and law. The participation of Ethics Train Wreck Engineer Extraordinaire Al Sharpton perfectly suits the situation. Whatever the witnesses say, whatever the facts may appear to be to rational and reasonable observers, too many people are invested in the presumption that a white racist shot an innocent black teen for “walking while black,” and nothing short of harsh punishment will avert claims of society-wide racism and the attendant anger, protests, and violence to come.
Disgracefully, more respectable media figures than Sharpton are also throwing kerosene on the fire. Here, for example, is Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson’s opening to today’s column:
“The “Stand Your Ground” laws in Florida and other states should all be repealed. At best, they are redundant. At worst, as in the Trayvon Martin killing, they are nothing but a license to kill.”
Oh, nice. Despite all the emerging questions about the incident, Robinson is still insinuating that Martin was killed by an armed man hunting black kids, and that this is just what white legislatures want. Al Sharpton couldn’t have said it better, or more provocatively. But for Robinson to write that now, in a publication like the Washington Post, even as it appears that Martin may have attacked Zimmerman, and knowing that the New Black Panther’s have placed a bounty on Zimmerman’s head, is truly despicable.
Meanwhile, MSNBC, which is not exactly a respectable new organization but aspires to be one, is throwing its weight and credibility behind the lynch mob mentality by allowing Sharpton to lead his usual blood-lust rallies and yet continue as a host on the cable network. CNN journalist ethics watchdog Howard Kurtz asked, “How on earth can Al Sharpton go there, be an activist, stand with the parents, and he asks people to contribute money, and he went to the Justice Department with the parents of Trayvon Martin. And then he does his [MSNBC] show, and then he speaks at the rally again. He’s covering himself! How can MSNBC allow that?”
Oh, that’s pretty easy to answer, Howard! MSNBC is shameless, irresponsible, reckless and unprofessional, and is perfectly happy, apparently, to plant the seeds of a race riot or twelve.
Not that the rest of the media isn’t doing its part…like by repeatedly using old photos of Martin that make him look like he’s 12, and a mug shot of Zimmerman that makes him seem like an axe murderer. Has any serious effort been made to find fairer, neutral photos? It certainly doesn’t seem so. It also seems like the media has framed this story without sufficient concern about whether its framing is fair or true.
If the damage from this train wreck is to be minimized, Trayvon’s also parents need to step out of the spotlight and be responsible in their grief. Right now it appears that they are fueling hate, while simultaneously creating cynicism. Was it really necessary, for example, to apply for trademarks for the phrases “I am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon”? I’m sure some helpfully greedy lawyer was responsible, but imagine the reaction if the Brown family had trademarked “Justice for Nicole” during the Simpson trial. Is this about justice, or making a killing on T-shirts?
Today I heard Martin’s father condemning the media for reporting developments in the story, specifically their son’s history of drug use and the fact that he had been suspended from school twice. Wrong: it was the parents who wove the tale of a completely innocent, exemplary kid who never broke a law or a rule in his life. They used this theme to get others to pre-judge George Zimmerman, who now has a price on his head. They may not now object when facts are brought to light that diminish that idealized portrait. If Trayvon was shot without provocation, his previous conduct, good or bad, doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. But it is grossly unfair to participate in the painting of Zimmerman as a monster whose bigotry took the life of a teen angel, and then to cry foul when the media attempts to bring the portrayal of the victim in line with the facts.
I don’t see how Florida officials can make a fair, objective and just assessment now about whether Zimmerman should be charged, as they are operating under a threat of violence by people and organizations who only want a particular result that fulfills a specific ideological agenda. I don’t see how a fair trial could be held if he were charged either, as it will be clear that an not guilty verdict will risk Rodney King-style riots encouraged by agitators like Sharpton and thugs like the New Black Panthers.
Now is the time for President Obama to exert proper and appropriate presidential leadership, unlike his first, ill-conceived and aggravating statement in which he personally identified with Trayvon, and to issue a call for calm, reason, fairness and justice no matter what the investigation ultimately uncovers. When a national organization says that it is trying to raise a posse of 5000 men to hunt down a citizen—Zimmerman—and subject him to kangaroo court and vigilante justice, it is time for some Presidential initiative. So far, all President Obama has done is to participate in this ethics train wreck.
Let’s see if he has the skill, courage and influence to stop it.