“I would rather have a free press and no government than a government and no free press.” —Thomas Jefferson
John Doe had been lying in a morgue with a 9 mm bullet hole in his chest for a day when Tracy Martin called 911 to report his son Trayvon missing. After describing his son to police, officers went to Martin’s house with a picture of his son, lifeless, bleeding from the mouth.
Rightwing media are decrying a ‘media circus’ surrounding the case. American Thinker ran an article arguing
“Zimmerman cannot possibly get a fair trial.”
This is a follow-up to their article speculating that “Skittles” and “iced tea” are code words for drugs. And maybe American Thinker is code for American Drinker.
Though George Zimmerman shot Trayvon 70 yards from his father’s girlfriend’s house on the evening of February 26th, no one began connecting dots until February 27th. By then, Sanford police had decided not to charge the shooter. He had felt threatened by a teenage boy with Skittles. Tumbleweed had rolled across the plains as ominous harmonicas wailed. George Zimmerman stood his ground.
The same day Tracy Martin learned his son had been gunned down, the Orlando Sentinel ran a story stating little more than a fatal shooting occurred in Sanford. With his son’s killer still a free man 11 days later, Tracy Martin held a press conference asking for Zimmerman’s arrest.
Under Chief Bill Lee, Sanford police appeared to be very busy, not investigating the crime, but covering their blue behinds. They stonewalled on releasing the 911 tapes until the mayor interceded, saying
“We’re not here to hide anything.”
They leaked negative information about Martin irrelevant to the case. They issued a statement threatening the media that any reporter who asked an off-duty official a question about the case would be arrested and charged with stalking. Later, this surveillance video showing Zimmerman without visible blood, bruises, scratches or cuts at the police station less than an hour after the shooting blew holes in the police’s version of events:
Ultimately, the city council voted no-confidence and Bill Lee stepped down “temporarily.”
Meanwhile, the same day as Tracy’s press conference, Change.org hosted a petition and The Huffington Post began reporting on the case. Black bloggers around the country began covering it. Bigger blogs and wider-circulating media began picking it up. The New York Times published an op-ed. As more media covered it, the Change.org petition’s signatures over time could be graphed as a viral curve. As the facts of the case—that Martin was unarmed, that Zimmerman had followed him against police instructions, that Martin called for help, that witnesses who did not corroborate the police version of events were dismissed by police—went public, a slow media trickle turned into a torrent. Three weeks after Zimmerman squeezed the trigger, Martin’s death had exploded into a heated national debate about race, justice, gun control and laws that encourage vigilantism.
The criticism against the media is dead wrong. The coverage of this case is not a ‘media circus.’ It is a classic case of the media serving its role as our first line of defense against bad governance. Sometimes government officials screw up royally. When they do, they have the power to intimidate, punish and silence their critics, to cover up and misdirect investigation and to reward the yes men who help them. In a tyranny, this would be the final word. In America, where
“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
the people have the right and the power to know what their officials are up to. In this case, our elected and appointed officials had created a three-ring justice circus.
Three rings of bad governance ripple out in concentric circles from the hole in Martin’s chest. There is the ring of the police bungling and apparent cover-up of the case; the ring of ALEC and the NRA who lobbied for the insane Stand Your Ground law; and the ring of the Florida GOP and Governor Jeb Bush who authored and signed the bill into law. The government failed and failed again, and as a result, an unarmed teenage boy died. But because the media did do its job, we know the outlines of what happened. Because of media coverage, higher authorities were stirred to dismiss lower authorities who had been bungling and covering up the case. Because the media succeeded where corporate sponsors, the GOP and the police failed, the special prosecutor has finally charged George Zimmerman with second degree murder. Because of intrepid reporting we know that Police Chief Bill Lee should be updating his resume, that ALEC and the NRA are murder-encouraging frauds who need to be boycotted to their last pennies and that the Florida GOP will take money from the slimiest sources without shame.
Now, the media should cool its heels and let the scales of justice tip where they will. But Trayvon is only beginning to get justice for his untimely death because our Founders saw a timeless truth: free speech and free press are at least as important to freedom and justice as democratic government. If Trayvon Martin can rest in peace it will be because relentless reporters kept the government in the hot seat until it began to do the right thing.