By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
11:01 PM EDT, June 24, 2013
Cable news was mostly bad news in Day One of the Trayvon Martin trial.
Why am I not shocked that once again 24/7 cable news failed to rise to a big-news occasion loaded with powerful sociological implications?
MSNBC promised fabulous live coverage of the trial. But when prosecuting attorney John Guy used the F-word as the third word in his opening argument, MSNBC didn't have a delay in place.
And they still didn't have one in place when he used it a second time for dramatic effect.
Finally, they went to Chuck Todd who apologized on behalf of his channel for not having a delay in place and promised that one would be put into place.
I wonder how long real journalists from NBC like Todd are going to let themselves be debased this way by their association with MSNBC. Really, I am not using that word loosely. Todd is way too good to have to front for such ineptitude.
The larger question: Is MSNBC capable of doing anything professional? Come on, they no longer even try to cover news with real reporters. At least, when they point their cameras at a live event, they ought to know how to cover it.
For those few not familiar with the opening arguments Monday, Guy used the f-word in quoting the words of defendant George Zimmerman on a call made to police as he was following Martin shortly before he shot the 17-year-old. "(Expletive) punks," he said. " These ---holes, they always get away."
MSNBC and HLN were the two cable channels with live coverage of the opening arguments. HLN was wall-to-wall, and I was fine even with the overkill among host and analysts, until I saw the promos the channel was airing for its coverage: re-creations of the night of the murder.
One featured someone getting out of a vehicle and the image of a hooded figure walking down a path on a rainy night.
Onscreen, we see and hear the real words of Zimmerman on a tape to a police dispatcher:
"This one looks like he's up to no good..."
"Are you following him?" the dispatcher asks.
"Yeah," Zimmerman replies.
"Okay, we don't need you to do that."
A woman's voice is then heard talking to a female dispatcher: "There's a gunshot."
"You just heard gunshots? How many?" the dispatcher asks.
"Yes, just one."
At first, I thought it was real footage. After all, the audio it is mixed with seems to be the same audio I've heard in news reports."
Then, coming to my senses, I thought, "How in the heck could they have real footage?"
No, they cooked it up. These were shameless re-creations, mixing real documentary evidence and faked video -- and then given an ominous death-in-the-night edge to attract viewers.
Tasteless doesn't start to describe these slimy promotions, as far as I am concerned. Doesn't anyone in cable news know where to stop?
Go crazy in your coverage if you must. Have countdown clocks. Have analysts saying crazy stuff and hot-dogging for the cameras and yuk-yukking at how clever they are even though someone died. But don't manipulate reality with re-creations to promote your coverage of a trial aimed at establishing the true historical facts of a murder.
Speaking of analysts behaving stupidly and badly, CNN owned the franchise on it Monday with the first of its nightly specials, "Self-Defense Or Murder?: The George Zimmerman Trial," hosted by Anderson Cooper.
The 10 p.m. specials are intended to be a wrap-up of the trial's daily events. It seemed like a good idea when I first heard about it.
Except much of the first installment was taken up with Cooper interviewing a Hollywood-Squares-like quartet of legal experts: Sunny Hostin, Mark Geragos, Marcia Clark and Jeffrey Toobin.
Cooper is a superb interviewer, but he plays up or down to the level of the room. Put him in a combat zone or at the scene of a natural disaster, and he's a joy to watch. Put him with Kathy Griffin on New Year's Eve, and you can't bear to watch how silly and stupid he can behave.
Monday night, it was more Cooper-and-Kathy than it was Cooper-quizzing-BP-officials-after-the-oil-spill.
Geragos spent most of his camera time saying outrageous stuff and laughing at his own jokes -- as if he were the most clever and funniest guy in the world. He was neither.
Toobin, who I once thought had a first-rated mind, was yuk-yukking right along with or at him. I am not sure which it was, but it was an absolutely inappropriate tone for a murder trial.
And Hostin didn't appear to know one of the most important and fundamental rulings of the trial: that the judge had said attorneys could use the word "profiling" but not say "racial" in front of it.
Since this case is so steeped in race, you have to wonder if Hostin did one second of preparation before coming on.
And later, Hostin said it wasn't a big problem that the judge ruled against letting two so-called experts testify as to whose voice is heard calling for help on a 911 tape.
She said it was no problem, because Martin's parents will be able to go on the stand and say it was their son -- so you don't need the experts.
Except, as Cooper had to inform her, Zimmerman's parents can do the same. And, in fact, his father had already said that was his son's voice.
I think the producer who booked her is going to have some explaining to do.
But as out of it as she was in her answers, it was less offensive than Geragos and Toobin and ultimately Cooper joking their way through substantial stretches of the discussion of the first day.
Let's hope, Jeff Zucker kicks this crew in the butt, and we get a nightly show worthy of what CNN once stood for.
But given the performance of the 24/7 cable news channels on big stories this year, I wouldn't count on it.
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