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?
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 —
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.