In 2012, the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Florida, Trayvon Martin, by a member of a community Neighborhood Watch program, George Zimmerman, became a racial flash point and the focus of heavy national news coverage. Eleven years ago this week, NewsBusters helped expose how deceptive editing by NBC News made the already-tense situation even worse; the resulting scandal led NBC to fire three people involved in the story, yet the network refused to issue an on-air correction or apology.
MRC President Brent Bozell and Fox News host Sean Hannity broke the story on the March 29, 2012 edition of Hannity. Two days earlier, NBC’s Today show had aired a clip that suggested Zimmerman volunteered the information that Martin was black, making it seem as if race was a factor in Zimmerman confronting the teenager.
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black,” viewers heard as the words flashed on screen. But the actual 9-1-1 call showed Zimmerman’s comment about race was in response to a question from the dispatcher:
ZIMMERMAN: “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.”
DISPATCHER: “Okay, and this guy — is he white, black or Hispanic?”
ZIMMERMAN: “He looks black.”
Further review showed NBC had aired variations of the edited conversation four additional times: on the March 19 Nightly News, twice on the March 20 Today show, and again on the March 22 Today show — always with Zimmerman appearing to volunteer the information about Martin’s race, and never including the dispatcher question.
“To edit that out is so distorting,” Hannity told Bozell on the March 29 “Media Mash” segment.
“Sean, it’s not distorting, it’s advancing a falsehood,” Bozell replied.
Compounding the controversy for NBC, the network was also permitting one of its MSNBC cable hosts, Al Sharpton, to cover the Trayvon Martin case on his weekday program while at the same time leading protests in Florida and calling for the arrest of Zimmerman.
“How on earth can Al Sharpton go there, and be an activist and stand with the parents and he asked people to contribute money...And then he does his show...How can MSNBC allow that?” wondered CNN’s Howard Kurtz on March 25, just a few days before NBC’s editing scandal was revealed.
The day after Bozell and Hannity’s revelations, MSNBC.com stealth-edited an online article which included the same misleading edit. The website added the proper context to the quotes, but gave readers no notice that it had been altered.
By Saturday, March 31, NBC yielded to the idea that something had gone wrong, launching an “internal investigation.” Reporting on NBC’s statement announcing the investigation, the Washington Post’s Eric Wemple criticized the network:
The difference between what Today put on its air and the actual tape? Complete: In the Today version, Zimmerman volunteered that this person “looks black,” a sequence of events that would more readily paint Zimmerman as a racial profiler. In reality’s version, Zimmerman simply answered a question about the race of the person whom he was reporting to the police. Nothing prejudicial at all in responding to such an inquiry.
Three days later, on April 3, NBC admitted that “an error” had been made in producing the story, and apologized via press release: “During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret. We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers,” the network said. Yet the programs which originally broadcast the error — NBC Nightly News and Today — said nothing to their viewers.
Back on Hannity April 5, a week after the story broke, MRC’s Bozell blasted the apology as “two whole sentences of nothing,” and chafed at the idea that this was a simple error: “This was no error, this was no mistake. This was deliberately done,” Bozell told Sean Hannity.
Once again, NBC waited until a Saturday to announce their next step: firing one of the producers who was involved in the editing process. That weekend, the President of NBC News, Steve Capus, claimed the misleading story was merely “a mistake and not a deliberate act to misrepresent the phone call.”
While NBC refused to mention the controversy on any of its news programs, Daily Show host Jon Stewart used his April 9 show to rip into the Peacock Network. Stewart scolded: “What the hell? NBC, you cut out the 911 dispatcher’s question....You make it sound like he was calling 911 to report aggravated blackness. Your edit changed everything about that.”
Later that month, New York Times media critic David Carr confronted NBC boss Capus and asked why no on-air correction had been offered. Capus rejected that his network was hiding their failure, but admitted they “probably” should have told viewers: “The reality is that we didn’t try to hide from it....We did an exhaustive investigation, I did interviews with a lot of publications to get the message out, but we probably should have done it on our own air.”
Yet no on-air acknowledgment came after Capus’s admission, either.
Ultimately, two more heads rolled at NBC: a local Miami reporter was fired in late April, and on May 3 the network confirmed that reporter Lilia Luciano — who had narrated three of the five reports which included the misleading edit — had been terminated. (Luciano is now a correspondent for CBS News — you can read about her recent work here.)
The following year, Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges. Despite their own transgressions, NBC’s coverage continued to inflame, such as during a post-verdict panel when a guest hyperbolically charged that the acquittal meant “black life means a little bit less than white life in America.”
Zimmerman sued NBC over the deceptive edits, yet lost the case because the judge ruled that he had not proved the network had acted with intentional malice.
But NBC’s infamous edit scandal found its way into the popular culture. In 2013, HBO’s short-lived drama The Newsroom featured an episode with a character making the same deceptive edit as NBC’s crew had done a year earlier. Yet in HBO’s Newsroom, the distressed news staff quickly spotted the mistake, and issued an on-air correction at the end of the same newscast. (Scroll down for video of the key scenes from that episode.)
In real life, however, NBC inserted its deceptively-edited versions into five stories over an eight day period (March 19 to 27), and only began its investigation after NewsBusters and Fox News blew the whistle. And NBC refused to respect its audience by supplying any on-air acknowledgment of their deception.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.