NBC is currently conducting an internal investigation into its editing of George Zimmerman's 911 call before he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The edited version made Zimmerman sound racist. This incident, combined with The New York Times' and Reuters' decisions to label Zimmerman a "white Hispanic" has some media watchdogs arguing that some in the media have inappropriately constructed a narrative suggesting that the shooting is race-based.
On NBC's "Today Show," an edited version of the 911 call made it sound as if Zimmerman said, "this guy looks like he's up to no good, he looks black."
In the actual conversation, though, Zimmerman said, "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 dispatcher then asked Zimmerman, "OK, and this guy, is he black, white or Hispanic?"
Zimmerman replied, "He looks black."
The edited version made it sound like Zimmerman noted Trayvon's race unprompted, which better fits the storyline that Zimmerman was motivated by racism towards blacks.
NBC told Eric Wemple, a blogger for The Washington Post specializing in coverage of the news media, that it is conducting an internal investigation of the incident.
Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog organization concerned about liberal bias, first brought attention to NBC's editing of the 911 call. Fox News also covered the story when Sean Hannity interviewed Brent Bozell, founder of Media Research Center, on Friday.
Others have similarly criticized The New York Times and Reuters for describing Zimmerman as a "white Hispanic," rather than simply Hispanic or Latino. Generally, news organizations do not describe Hispanics or Latinos as "white Hispanic." Critics argue that the term was used because it fit a story that the incident was white on black racism.
"The term, rarely if ever used before this tragedy, is necessary in telling the Martin story in a more comfortable way," conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times. "What's the comfortable way? It's the way the blame for Martin's death belongs squarely at the feet of 'the system.' And 'the system' is a white thing, don't you know."
The notion that Zimmerman was motivated by racism has been advanced more explicitly by politicians.
Speaking before a congressional committee, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said Trayvon "was executed for 'WWB' in a 'GC.' Walking while black in a gated community."
Jesse Jackson argued that Trayvon was the victim of racial profiling in an editorial for The Guardian.
"The tragic reality of the Trayvon Martin case is not unique but universal; it was not unusual, but typical. Racial profiling is all too common in the US, and has led to the killing of a young man," Jackson wrote.
President Barack Obama also suggested the killing was race-based when he said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
Fox News Political Analyst Juan Williams argued, on "Fox News Sunday," that racism has been assumed because white racism toward blacks has become so familiar.
"If you look at [the Trayvon Martin case], it's totally different than the Civil Rights history. And yet, because the narrative is so familiar to so many people, people keep trying to fit things into that narrative and they want to make the Trayvon Martin case into an exemplar of the kind of injustice that took place 50 years ago. It is not," Williams said.
On CNN Friday, Charlton McIlwain, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, argued that the heightened tension in the current debate over Trayvon's death has made reasonable discussions over race issues more difficult.
"What we end up with is two sides equally committed to their cause. All of a sudden, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are turned into heroes and villains and we kind of cast our full emotions and projections on them. ... And it's hard to talk past that kind of rhetoric and that kind of viewpoint," McIlwain said.
NBC has also been criticized from the left. Kevin Drum, political blogger for Mother Jones, a liberal publication, accused NBC of making a serious blunder.
"This is now fated to be Exhibit A in conservative charges of mainstream media bias for about the next century or so. And who can blame them? What a cockup."