[Update: Friday, 6.11pm: Coincidentally, the H-S reports on a Duke Law School forum about the Martin shooting. The analysis all seems on-point, especially on the peculiar nature of the Florida "stand-your-ground" law, though I'm far more skeptical about the likelihood of any federal prosecution than is Prof. Beale. That said: it's striking to note the contrast between the scheduling of this panel and the lack of such a Law School event while the lacrosse case was occurring. (There was an excellent law school panel several months after the exoneration.)]
Last week, Andrew Sullivan’s highly-trafficked Daily Beast blog ran a post with the above title; it consisted mostly of a letter from a Sullivan reader analyzing the George Zimmerman case.
The item captured my attention for three reasons: (1) It represented a break from the increasingly unhinged anti-Israel fanaticism that has come to characterize the Sullivan blog; (2) It clashed with Sullivan’s utter indifference to the abuses of Mike Nifong, the Duke faculty/administration, or the New York Times as the lacrosse case was occurring; (3) The argument made little sense.
Alas, the Zimmerman/lacrosse comparisons have become increasingly commonplace—in a particularly high-profile example, the linkage occurred this morning in a Shelby Steele op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. And unlike Sullivan, virtually all of these comparisons have come from the right side of the political spectrum. See, for instance, Rush Limbaugh terming the Zimmerman affair “the next Duke lacrosse case,” or a former Justice Department attorney describing the Zimmerman case as “Duke lacrosse, squared,” or Business Insider’s Michael Brendan Daugherty implying that the media’s mishandling of the lacrosse case explains why we should be skeptical of its Zimmerman coverage. (While avoiding any negative critique of Zimmerman’s character, Daugherty helpfully added that the falsely accused players were “pigs.”) A google search of “George Zimmerman” “Duke lacrosse” yields 17,000 hits. Among the few to reject the comparison—in an analysis with which I agree—was Steven L. Taylor at Outside the Beltway. But most of the other hits appear to attempt to link the two cases.
It’s worth making an obvious point: in the lacrosse case, nothing happened. In the Florida case, Zimmerman shot to death an unarmed teenager. Beyond that basic and overwhelming difference, the Zimmerman/lacrosse comparison is strained, almost apples-to-oranges, at best; and at worst a deliberate attempt to exploit (and tarnish) the students’ innocence as a shield to advance an unrelated ideological agenda.
Broadly speaking, the lacrosse case featured three differing loci of misconduct. First and most important, of course, was Mike Nifong, and those who worked at his behest (the Durham Police Department, DNA Security). Without Nifong’s serial violations of procedural norms, the case never would have developed; without his race-baiting demagoguery and improper public remarks, the case would have received less media attention. Nifong was also critical in exposing the hypocrisy of many who presumed guilt (the Group of 88, the Times, the state NAACP), since these were groups and people who never would have bent over backwards to defend prosecutorial misconduct in almost any other circumstance.
There’s no equivalent of Mike Nifong, or anyone resembling him, in any of the various prosecutor’s offices who have evaluated Zimmerman—calling into question the merits of any comparison between the two cases.
Second, the lacrosse case featured a litany of dubious behavior by members of the Duke faculty and administration—conduct that betrayed the academy’s traditional ideals of dispassionate evaluation of evidence in pursuit of the truth. The Group of 88 statement represented the low point of faculty misconduct, which also included in-class harassment, grade retaliation, indefensible statements from the university president (“whatever they did was bad enough”), and ignoring the plain language of the faculty handbook and student bulletin.
There’s no academic equivalent of the Group of 88, or Richard Brodhead, in the Zimmerman affair—calling into question the merits of any comparison between the two cases.
Third, the lacrosse case featured a torrent of questionable behavior from the media, ranging from the fact-challenged material in the New York Times and Herald-Sun to the guilt-presuming screeds of Nancy Grace, Wendy Murphy, and Selena Roberts. A central characteristic of the media mishandling of the case was the guilt-presuming crowd’s imperviousness to the unimpeachable evidence that undermined their assumptions. And so revelations of the negative DNA tests, or the Seligmann ATM video, or the Nifong-ordered lineup transcript, or the full statements of Kim Roberts and Mangum’s “driver” (which contradicted Nifong’s version of events) had virtually no impact on how the Times or the H-S or Grace or Murphy or Roberts approached the case. Elements of the media, along with many of those who purport to cover or analyze the news (Grace/Murphy/Roberts), were revealed to be not truth-seekers but closed-minded ideologues.
The Zimmerman case certainly has featured a rush to judgment from elements in the media, ranging from Al Sharpton to Michelle Malkin. And it’s also featured breaches of media ethics, ranging from NBC’s misleading editing of a 911 tape to make Zimmerman look like a racist to Business Insider’s using a misidentified photo from a neo-Nazi website to make Trayvon Martin look like a thug.
But there’s no comparison between the media response to the lacrosse and Zimmerman cases regarding evaluation of unimpeachable evidence. The three such examples in the Zimmerman case are the Zimmerman 911 tape, the video of Zimmerman at the police station, and (to a lesser extent) the audio analysis of a scream at the end of another 911 tape. Each of these pieces of evidence has been somewhat murky, although in general not helpful to Zimmerman. (The 911 tape features a huffing and puffing, armed Zimmerman improperly pursuing Martin on foot; the video shows Zimmerman with a gash on the back of his head, as his attorney had previously suggested, but no sign of the broken nose that his attorney also claimed he had suffered; the audio scream analysis hurts Zimmerman but suffers from not having any Martin audio for purposes of comparison.) In sharp contrast to what occurred in the lacrosse case, where the unimpeachable evidence always was clear and always tilted in one direction (the case was a fraud), there’s nothing from any of these pieces of evidence that would undermine or even seriously challenge a “rush-to-judgment” thesis against Zimmerman.
And so, whatever media misconduct has occurred in the Zimmerman case (and what has occurred has come from all over the ideological spectrum), it’s of a quite different type than what happened in the lacrosse case—calling into question the merits of any comparison between the two cases.
Indeed, if a reader were desperate to find some kind of comparison between the lacrosse and Zimmerman cases, the clearest one would seem to involve not Zimmerman but Martin. As Nifong’s case imploded, his defenders in the left-wing blogosphere retreated to character assassinations against the lacrosse players (the “they’re-not-saints” line of attack). At the time, my retort was that to my knowledge I had never taught any saints in my time as a college professor; and in any event the students’ alleged lack of saintly qualifications was irrelevant to the central questions of the case—explaining the misconduct of Nifong, the faculty, the media, and their associates.
In recent days, as Zimmerman’s legal peril has appeared to increase, his defenders (mostly, it seems, in the conservative blogosphere) have turned their sights on Martin and his character. (The outright “not-a-saint” line has even appeared from time to time.) Readers have had an opportunity to see Martin’s twitter feed, his e-mail account, and unflattering photos of him. This material might be interesting to those engaged in sociological studies of urban, 17-year-old African-Americans, but it’s of little relevance to the issue that will decide this case: whether Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law applies to a figure, like Zimmerman, who improperly initiated a pursuit that set into motion events for which he would later claim self-defense. The Florida law might well be elastic enough to protect Zimmerman—but if it does, whether Martin is a sinner or a saint will have no bearing on the outcome.
Of what overall relevance is the commentary of Limbaugh, or Steele, or Daugherty, or the figures like them? That in recent weeks we’ve seen hundreds of posts, columns, and radio bites—and mostly from people ostensibly sympathetic to the falsely accused students—linking Collin Finnerty, Dave Evans, and Reade Seligmann to a Florida man who killed an unarmed teenager. The prevalence of this comparison—a comparison, again, to a man who killed someone—provides yet another reminder of how significantly the misconduct of Nifong and the DPD harmed the falsely accused students’ reputations.