NBC News says it was an “error,” not a case of malicious editing to distort the story. Believe that and I have a gaily feathered peacock I would like to sell you.
The issue at hand: NBC’s editing of the 911 audio tape in the Trayvon Martin case, making it appear the young man’s killer was racially motivated. NBC apologized and insisted that it was an “error in the production process” that misled viewers into concluding that the shooter, George Zimmerman, was obsessed with the victim’s race during the 911 call before the killing.
An “error in the production process?” Believe that and it’s 20 percent off on the peacock.
Here is the NBC-edited version of the portion of the 911 call in question: Zimmerman tells the 911 operator “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” And here is the full, published version: Zimmerman says “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.” Dispatcher says, “OK, and this guy, is he black, white or Hispanic?” Zimmerman replies, “He looks black.”
The New York Times says NBC fired the offending producer, and Reuters quotes sources within the network claiming the producer’s action were a very bad mistake but not deliberate. Believe that and I will throw in a cockatiel, too.
Let me tell you something, kiddos, I have been editing videotape (and before that film) for 39 years and it’s virtually impossible for that to be just an honest mishap. You are likelier to err by leaving something IN, than by editing something OUT. That editor had to make a conscious decision to excise those words, and every time you do that, you question yourself: Am I distorting the quote, am I changing this person’s message, am I sending the wrong signals to the viewers about the circumstances that caused this person to say that — in other words, the context of these remarks?
And context, of course, is often pretty important. Politicians are forever claiming they were quoted “out of context,” like that is necessarily a bad thing. Virtually all quotes in newspapers or on TV are “out of context,” in other words, excerpts from a larger text. What the politicians are ineptly trying to articulate is that they were quoted out of context and the meaning of what they said therefore was distorted. Only occasionally is their message truly distorted.
But let me tell you about a situation — far less important than the racially charged situation in Florida — where a local politician and his words were distorted by the editing of the videotape. It shows how context can change stuff.
About a year ago, Schenectady’s Brian Stratton was reaping his political reward: the executive directorship of the New York Canal Corporation. At $150,000 or so per annum, it was a tasty political plum. So here I am with a whole bunch of reporters in the hallway outside Stratton’s City Hall office and, wiseacre that I am, I asked the mayor what he knows about operating canals.
Stratton, appearing a bit miffed at the question, says “I know that when the water comes in, the boats go up, and when the water goes out, the boats go down.” That reply, minus my impertinent question, aired on all the channels that night. But Stratton’s words, minus the question for context, makes him appear arrogant and almost dismissive of whatever money concerns a citizen might have about his cushy patronage post.
In Trayvon Martin’s case, unless the editor, who is described as “seasoned,” is completely off his bentwood rocker, his or her actions had to be purposeful, had to have motive. All of this has absolutely nothing to do with Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. It has a lot to do with the public perception of his guilt in a community and an atmosphere said to be sizzling emotionally and racially. Plus it confirms for every nut-job in the country the conviction that the news media routinely shapes the news to support its political beliefs.
Now, getting back to that peacock ...