Apart from what the Department of Justice might decide to do with George Zimmerman, there remains one piece of unfinished legal business from the sensationalized case — what to do with the sensationalizer. The death of Trayvon Martin might have fallen under the media spotlight over what it meant for the definition of self-defense and the limits of community-watch programs even without the overtones of race. After NBC selectively edited Zimmerman’s call to police, though, that angle overtook all other aspects of the case, and many other unrelated crime stories with a little more national significance.
With the acquittal behind them, Zimmerman and his legal team plan to push their lawsuit against NBC “ASAP”:
According to Zimmerman attorney James Beasley, the case against NBC News was stayed pending the outcome of the criminal case. Now that’s out of the way, and Beasley is ready to proceed. “We’re going to start in earnest asap, we just have to get the stay lifted which is a ministerial act,” says Beasley, a Philadelphia lawyer, via e-mail.
When asked how the not-guilty verdict affects the civil case against NBC News, Beasley responded, “This verdict of not guilty is just that, and shows that at least this jury didn’t believe that George was a racist, profiling, or anything that the press accused George of being. That probably doesn’t get you that much but it’s simply time for us to start the case and hold accountable anyone who was irresponsible in their journalism.”
NBC had earlier declared that a jury verdict in the case would vindicate their journalism:
The company also noted the pivotal nature of the second-degree murder case: “[I]f Zimmerman is convicted, that fact alone will constitute substantial evidence that the destruction of his reputation is the result of his own criminal conduct, and not of the broadcasts at issue which, like countless other news reports disseminated by media entities throughout the country, reported on the underlying events.”
D’oh! As Erik Wemple dryly notes, “That formulation is now null.” It’s a curious defense anyway. Surely an objective news report should stand on its own without relying on a criminal trial’s jury to rescue it, no?
Variety’s analyst thinks that Zimmerman’s status as a public figure will protect NBC in court, as well as a lack of ability to show malice:
In December, Zimmerman sued NBC, reporter Ron Allen and two other news personnel on claims that the network’s edits of his 911 call to police were manipulated to make it sound like he was a racist. The Florida judge in Zimmerman’s case, Debra Nelson, put the defamation case on hold pending the result of the criminal trial.
Jody Armour, professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, said that although it is “possible” that Zimmerman’s claim against the network will be strengthened, it “may not have a big impact because he has to prove actual malice if he is trying to prove defamation.”
He believes that Zimmerman “is almost certainly going to fall into the classification” of a public figure, raising the bar for plaintiffs, in that they have to prove knowledge that they knew that the information was false or had reckless disregard for the truth.
In a defamation trial, however, NBC can say that the not guilty verdict “has limited probative value as far as establishing a claim that they acted with actual malice toward him, that they acted with actual indifference to the truth,” Armour said. The point is that a defamation trial would have to do with the circumstances at the time the story aired.
There are a couple of problems with this defense. First, the media doesn’t get protection when their libelous reporting creates a “public figure.” Zimmerman did not set out to make himself a public figure — he holds no elective office, and didn’t publicize his efforts at neighborhood-watch security. He was entirely obscure before the shooting, and only NBC’s false report made him into a national figure.
Second, if the Zimmerman team wants to show malice at NBC News, all they have to do is play MSNBC’s coverage of the trial and especially the acquittal. The anger and malice (and even more misinformation) didn’t just come from guest panelists on their coverage, it came from MSNBC’s hosts, paid by NBC News. The phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” comes to mind when proving this particular aspect of the case.
If Zimmerman’s legal team is moving ASAP to get the case to trial, NBC’s lawyers should be moving ASAP to get the check cut for the settlement. Don’t expect that to take very long, either.