Toure de Force: CNN and MSNBC Personalities Clash Over Coverage Of Martin Killing

Tongues are wagging over a confrontation between CNN’s Piers Morgan and MSNBC’s Toure (a journalist who appears to go by just one name like Cher or the Artist Formerly Known As Prince). At issue was whether Morgan should have been tougher on George Zimmerman’s brother in an interview or conversely whether journalists like Toure have discarded their neutrality and objective distance in declaring Zimmerman a murderer. Putting aside the childish rhetoric, it is a serious question of whether journalists are crossing the line into advocacy in declaring the guilt of someone like Zimmerman. The controversy has also raised long-standing uncertainty of the role of anchors and journalists in actively supporting a claim, cause or movement.


The exchange below is clearly driven to some extent by bad blood between the two men who crossed virtual swords over Twitter. After the Zimmerman interview, Toure objected that “Piers did not challenge Robert Zimmerman the way a professional journalist should” and later accused him of “allowing Rob Zimmerman to spout unchallenged lies further poisons a tense moment in American history. Be professional.” Morgan responded by tweeting “Oh Toure, you’re such a tedious little twerp . . . ps @Toure – 71k tweets for just 57k followers? Ouch. Ever get the feeling you’re doing a LOT of jabbering but nobody’s listening?”

Not exactly the stuff of Edward R. Murrow. Then however it got more direct and even more personal on the show. Morgan pointed out that Toure had pronounced the guilt of a man without all of the evidence and disregarding the claims of the accused. Toure insisted that Morgan was ignoring the obvious evidence of guilt.

MORGAN: Wait a minute. At no stage did I give any sense that I agreed with what he was saying. I challenged him repeatedly about many of the things that he was saying.

TOURE: What you understand as challenging, perhaps, maybe that goes in England. That’s not what we do in terms of challenging in America.

While not defending Morgan’s interview with Zimmerman, he did challenge Zimmerman’s account:

MORGAN: How do you explain as a family the video that came out last night of your brother within not much time after this incident walking around, unaided, perfectly OK, with no apparent markings to his face? If you get a broken nose or the kind of head injuries sustainable from having your head smashed on the concrete floor, you’re going to have blood everywhere. You’re going to have injuries. There is nothing.

I mean, we’re looking at images now. There’s no visible sign of any attack. How do you explain that?

I did understand Toure’s frustration with Zimmerman’s brother. However, I was a bit surprised to see a journalist say that a second unreleased 911 call would clearly prove Zimmerman guilty.

MORGAN: Do you believe that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin?

TOURE: Yes.

MORGAN: So you’ve already tried him? You’ve convicted him?

TOURE: You asked me what I think.

MORGAN: You called me — you called me — you called me an irresponsible journalist. Really? That is professional? Professional journalism means that you have just —

(CROSSTALK)

TOURE: — George Zimmerman is clearly showing repeatedly racist bias against a person who he does not know and has never seen before, and is pouring all these sort of stereotypes into this person.

That’s even before we get to coon. They always get away, which is ridiculous because the jails are filled with millions of black men. But he thinks they always get away. He’s up to no good. He’s got his hands in his pants. He’s on drugs.

It’s a 17-year-old boy walking down the street talking to his girl on the phone. None of those things are true. But he’s already said all those things.

And then we have the other 911 call, which I imagine will be extraordinarily damaging if we ever get to a court of law, where we hear someone screaming, which clearly sounds like a young boy and not a 200 something pound 28-year-old man with a gun.

A person, however, is screaming. There’s a gunshot. And there’s no more screaming. That sounds to me pretty damning. It reminds him of the face Emmett Till, bashed in the coffin, where we see here’s evidence of a black body being destroyed wrongfully, innocently. And the justice system, of course, not coming to his aid.

MORGAN: I’ve raised many questions about the justice system, the legal process, as anyone who has watched the show in the last week knows. What I haven’t done is convict George Zimmerman because I haven’t seen all the facts yet. You berate me for a lack of professional journalism.

But you have just said that you believe he murdered him. You have a very biased, one sided opinion of this, based on your assessment of the limited amount of facts that we have at our disposal. That’s your prerogative. I don’t challenge you. I simply say that as a fact. You also think it’s OK to do stupid dumb jokes, mocking — what did you call it, Zimmermaning (ph) me? You’re killing me.

So we are different people. I like to think that I’m a professional journalist, Toure. I think you are something else. But I appreciate you joining me tonight.

There has always been an interesting question of when a journalist should clearly state what has been established even if denied by a party. For example, I have long criticized the use of the term “enhanced interrogation” by the media — a term made up by the Bush Administration to avoid calling waterboarding “torture” as uniformly defined by U.S. and foreign courts. That is an example of where news reporting can mislead the reader into believing that there is a credible debate or uncertainty over whether waterboarding is torture. Yet, here many journalists feel the evidence is clear and conclusive — should they speak of the evidence in such terms?

Of course, in this case, you have an individual who insists that he was attacked and there is only sketchy evidence of what occurred at the scene. I have previously stated that I believe Zimmerman could have been arrested at the scene based on that evidence. Yet,I have been criticized for simply noting that the case had “murky” element and was “not as conclusive” as suggested in some coverage. I have also been criticized for not declaring Zimmerman clearly guilty while exploring the likely issues facing any possible prosecution.

As a legal commentator and a civil libertarian, I am uncomfortable with political campaigns and petitions demanding prosecutions. While I have expressed my skepticism over Zimmerman’s account, there remains standards to satisfy for any prosecution — including proof beyond a reasonable doubt. There are many details that have yet to come out, including forensic evidence. There are also questions such as whether Zimmerman will claim that Martin tried to grab the gun. Self-defense cases are context bound and detail driven. My training leads me to be neutral in such analysis. While expressing my skepticism, I think it is important to explore both versions of the shooting in a detached manner to assist others in reaching conclusions about the state of the evidence.

The question is whether some television personalities and journalists have crossed the line such as Al Sharpton’s suggestion of civil unrest unless there is an indictment. This includes journalists like Allison Samuels recounting what Martin was thinking at the time of his killing:

SAMUELS: Is this slavery day, where we have to show our papers and say, “Hey, look, I’m allowed to be here. I’m free?” That’s ridiculous. You don’t have to explain who you are or why you’re here to someone who does not have a badge, who is not in a uniform.

I am sure this young man’s attitude was, “What are you following me for, what are you doing?” And I don’t know why they would try to flip the script on that, and make that seem that that’s inappropriate, when he had every right to be there, and didn’t have to explain that to anyone.
. . .

SAMUELS: Trayvon Martin had no idea what was happening. He had no idea why this guy was behind him. And the young girl, the girlfriend, I think is going to be very important when she is able to testify, to say he was saying, “This guy’s following me.” She’s telling him to run. Trayvon was very scared for his life, and I think there’s no way that they can sort of change the way that that went down, no matter what they release. . . .

SAMUELS: No, and I was in Sanford, Florida for a couple of days. I went around the community, I talked to a number of people. No one that I spoke to there could sort of defend what George Zimmerman had done, no one was in agreement with what he had done, and no one had seen what he had done. The women that you’ve seen — who admitted, who came forth — they went to the police, they went to the police station, and they talked to the media, they talked about what they saw. I even talked to a little kid who had seen sort of the end of it.

But I talked to no one who had actually witnessed the other part of this story that Zimmerman is putting forth. So, it’s all very suspect. It is also very convenient for it to come out now, when he — Zimmerman — and the police department is taking such a beating.

Samuels made some very good points in the interview and she is a serious journalist by any measure, but the question is where journalists should draw the line in presuming feelings or thoughts. This has always been a difficult question for me in drawing this line. However, I am concerned that the super-heated environment in this case may be interfering with an objective accounting of the facts and possible prosecution. That can itself lead to a violent response if the public is not told about the difficult legal issues that would be raised in any trial.

Notably, the continued super-heated language and marches (and irresponsible tweeting and use of social media) will create a serious question of a fair trial if an indictment is ever brought in the case. A change of venue motion would likely be filed, but where would such a trial occur. With rallies being held in major cities, the defense might try to push the trial to smaller cities or towns. However, there may be a racial differential in the jury pool in such jurisdictions. That would create an ironic twist that the rallies and public statements in various cities could work to the advantage of the defense in a venue change in a more rural area or less urban area.

There may be a different standard for legal commentators and journalists as opposed to others. However, for years, legal commentators have been urged to be outspoken in their accounts — taking predictable sides in coverage that often produces more heat than light. Another (different) question is whether it is appropriate for anchors on Fox or MSNBC to lead political rallies and campaigns. Keith Olbermann was fired at MSNBC for writing a couple of small checks to candidates for political office. I understand that policy and the importance to keep journalists neutral, but there appears no bar on actually leading a political rally and openly supporting one party — so long as you do not give actual money. Again, I am not sure of what the objective line is that divided a small financial contribution to a candidate and leading voting drives for a particular party. Fox recently cancelled an auction item by Dick Morris to assist a local GOP campaign. In defense of people like Sharpton, I am not sure such a line has been articulated. Moreover, Sharpton is billed as a civil rights leader and activist as opposed to a journalist. Morris is defined as a political operative. Does that matter?

What do you think?

Here is the transcript of the Toure/Morgan interview.

132 thoughts on “Toure de Force: CNN and MSNBC Personalities Clash Over Coverage Of Martin Killing

  1. I agree with you but when reporters like Plante or Scieffer (the ones who have the most recently annoyed me with this behavior) give the report and, without prompting, then add a line oir 2 that is commentary and interpretation, that negates the journalistic objectivity and restraint they should have employed while standing there reporting a story. If it is a panel show, if they are asked specific questions, based on thier suppositions, speculations, etc then they will answer in an unobjective way, but just the SCOTUS should be impartial so too should be the recitation of the facts.

  2. Michael Murry,
    You must be posting suppertime there in Australia (and he responds huffily he’s in NZ)

    “Passing laws to encourage armed, homicidal confrontation between and among hyper-terrified Americans doesn’t sound wise to me”

    This gives me an extension to a concept Chomsky wrote about:
    Adaptation and internal realization of opinions from above.
    You know the saying: “All of the people some of the time…..”

    Well, if all of the people are treated to a terror message bombardment constantly they will absorb and internalize it whether they agree conciously or not. I think it may be more widespread than I can see from Stockholm.

  3. LeeJCaroll,
    Dredd made a point that most of what we “know” and accept as probable or thruth is built on information from others.
    Doesn’t that make objectivity, impartiality, truth, etc rather moot?
    Only the discussion of relíability of sources, which is what you are essentially talking about remains.

  4. leejcaroll,

    Don’t get me wrong, btw. I am with you about facts only. I rarely read opinion pieces, rarely stay to watch panels, the facts only stories are my favorites. The more straightforward the facts, the faster I can get to my next source. But in the wide view, the expectation that a ‘journalist’, will not be asked to apply opinion, separate from fact but still on the story, is just not plausible nor the reality of journalism as it lives outside the classroom. Good editors slice through the opinions inserted in a piece that color the narrative.

    I’m examining your word “luxury” though for a moment. One should really make sure the opinion comports with supportive facts. Whether that is luxurious doesn’t register to me. When I think of whether a Professor of Law would have more ‘luxury’, it doesn’t seem so either. The facts matter in any opinion, imo. I’m starting from that premise.

    Luxury is a subjective experience. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable to remain in the fact world, so it might be luxurious to simply support an opinion on the perception of facts. “yes, I think they will be forthcoming based on their past history of disclosures.” or “well, the pattern doesn’t indicate to me that we’ll see a change.”

    For years I solidly believed that good journalism, aka professional journalism to some, required objectivity and this “objective journalism” idea sunk in. Having asked very ethical journalists and journalism professors, even they have been clear “objective journalism” simply does not exist. A human being has a view. That changes the conditions immediately. Get used to it, a few said. We can’t tell all the facts because there are too many. The moment we narrow the vision down to what is important to tell, we’ve already rendered our opinion.

    This was their message: distinguish the perfect from the real. While we strive for the perfect, we must accept what is real. We have a view. That view should be qualified. When acting as the ‘witness’ be the ‘witness’.

    “telling it like it is” journalism of Hunter S. Thompson is no less professional journalism than the guy who says, “a man shot another man in the public square. he was arrested at the scene. the other man is in intensive care and expected to survive. charges are pending. witnesses say the two were in an argument over a parking spot”.

    Is Hunter S Thompson’s journalism ethical journalism….different question maybe from whether it is professional?

    Professional means simply one gets paid. It implies one wants to continue to get paid. This can put you at odds with being ethical. Sometimes you have to be ethical instead of professional. Sometimes to remain professional, you’re ethics will be called into question. No?

    Thanks for your clarification and call out if you see I’ve misread you.

  5. “give the report and, without prompting, then add a line oir 2 that is commentary and interpretation”

    a per media example here: In TV reporting, for example, a person who is assigned to report facts should be doing so as a ‘witness’. If they are asked for an interpretation, then render it. Or if it would be qualified as an opinion separate from the facts, and that opinion doesn’t interfere with the facts, then I’m not disturbed. Coloring the facts with opinion is a violation to the viewer experience.

    I’m very with you about the blurring the lines. If a good anchor or host and a good ethical reporter present a piece, opinions should be separated from facts. “what was the feeling in the room?” isn’t something a person can answer without subjective notions. If we put a camera in the same room, we might agree with their read of “peaceful”, “amiable”, “tense”, “confused”.

    They are there to be our eyes and ears.

    “but just the SCOTUS should be impartial so too should be the recitation of the facts”
    Since SCOTUS is simply supposed to make sure their is accord between laws and the Constitution, both in letter and application. This doesn’t not automatically mean ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’ will be decided in their court. Thus, their personal opinions might differ from what the Constitutional remedies call for, correct?

    A journalist isn’t in the same boat as a SCOTUS judge. A journalist may start from a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ view and still be an ethical journalist if…they support their story with facts that allow the audience to determine for themselves if this is ‘right or wrong’. They aren’t required to determine this along a very narrow “constitutional” ground like SCOTUS. Many of our greatest recognized journalists, who were not impugned for their ‘ethics’, did so out of a conviction for a cause. Advocacy Journalism is a hot topic for some purists. But that is just another type of classism found in journalism, no different than Professional means get paid and yet some use it as a designation of superior quality, refined, accepted.

    Unlike lawyers, Journalists have no Bar Exam. There are not review boards outside their employer. A responsible journalist wouldn’t want to lose their reputation by distorting the facts.

  6. “indicates a lack of familiarity with the red pencil pusher.”

    I think you mean blue not red. Besides, it is digital now anyway. Nor did all editors use pencils.

    btw-a CMX 600 doesn’t have a blue pencil either. Nor does Final Cut Pro.

  7. idealist707, “Only the discussion of relíability of sources, which is what you are essentially talking about remains.:”

    exactly. this is often the greatest hassle in putting together a quality piece of journalism; finding qualified sources.

  8. MCM
    Thank you for this….
    “A human being has a view. That changes the conditions immediately. Get used to it, a few said. We can’t tell all the facts because there are too many. The moment we narrow the vision down to what is important to tell, we’ve already rendered our opinion.”

    But then you have said this before. Paraphrase: “Having decided what is important in choosing a story to investigate one has left objectivity long behind,” is what I think you wrote.

  9. Michael Cheneywatch McCollum wrote — ‘Having asked very ethical journalists and journalism professors, even they have been clear “objective journalism” simply does not exist. A human being has a view. That changes the conditions immediately.’

    Which is the reason editors exist.

    • Winston,

      “Which is the reason editors exist.”

      Very well put.
      As was “clarity would definitely be an issue with the copy editor.”

  10. idealist707, “Only the discussion of relíability of sources, which is what you are essentially talking about remains.:”
    You have the ‘who created G-d, and who (or what) created the what that created G-d and on and on it goes.
    How reliable is a source; from where do his ‘facts come? At some point there is the empty glass on the table fact, no more no less,. Everything else is, of necessity, and life, not impartial.
    3 drones were sent over ( ) and so many ( ) killed, that is fact. A soldier who massacred had a fight with his wife that morning, massacre is fact, the fight, maybe, maybe not – unless the person was in the room during the fight. The added comment about his d being depressed, maybe having PTSD is supposition and infiltrated bythe colored glasses of the ‘reliable’ sources. (Heck, even most psych dx is not objective.)
    I remember, and memory comes with glasses too) Walter Cronkite giving the facts, John Facenda, Huntley, Brinkley, giving the facts. They did not interject their personal feelings at the end of the stories.

  11. Michael Cheneywatch McCollum1
    ((*_*))
    And I agree with ou. If I am watching an investigative journalist (and what happened to them btw -seems there are no more Woodward and Bernsteins) I do not expect just the facts, well, I do, to support his story.
    I have no problem with the questions asked or their answers but when the lines show clear partiality then it needs to be addressed and acknowledged as commentary/opiniion. Too often I have heard Plante and Schieffer (since they are the most recent for my recall) add lines that are clearly personal bias/belief and that can change viewers percepotion of the facts given. As you say “When acting as the ‘witness’ be the ‘witness’. To me it is a luxury when they can express these biases while purporting to give the facts on a particular story but have not been asked questions that would require a more personal reply.

    I think Thompson and say Cronkite are 2 different animals. One’s job was to report the facts, the other to color them..
    Both are ethical, and professional, but called by a different name.

    and leejcaroll, thanks for the exchange. greatly appreciated.
    MichaelCheyneyWatch1, And back at ya’ ((*_*))

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