How Will Verdict Affect George Zimmerman’s Libel Suit Against NBC?

george zimmerman verdict

George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict adds a new wrinkle to a separate legal case in the Florida courts: His defamation suit against NBC.

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.

It will be hard to find a jury that is not aware of the not guilty verdict, which would make a jury trial, if it gets to that point, all the more unpredictable.

Gary Bostwick of Bostwick & Jassy, which specializes in media First Amendment cases, said that “my first impression would be that [the not guilty verdict] would make a difference in the theatrical sense in front of a jury, but in a legal sense I am not sure it has any relevance in a defamation case.”

Zimmerman’s suit stated that “NBC created this false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman’s own words, splicing together disparate parts of the recording to create the illusion of statements that Zimmerman never actually made.”

NBC News apologized to viewers for the incident, but after the suit was filed it vowed to “vigorously defend our position in court.” Zimmerman’s legal team contend that the network never apologized to him.

“There was no intent to portray Mr. Zimmerman unfairly,” the network said. In a legal response, the network noted how other news outlets were reporting on the issue of race and that they, too, were forced to edit the 911 call.

Two defendants in the defamation suit, reporter Lilia Rodriguez Luciano and producer Jeff Burnside, were terminated in spring, 2012, after stories surfaced about the editing of the calls.

In media defamation cases, plaintiffs have to show that the facts about them were false, that the news story was about them and caused harm and, in the case of public figures, that there was malice, or that the news outlet knew it was false and went ahead and published it anyway. Zimmerman was not a public figure before the shooting of Trayvon Martin last year, and an issue in his litigation may very well be the extent to which he falls into the category of a “limited purpose” public figure. Courts have weighed the extent to which a person voluntarily becomes part of public debate.

Zimmerman’s suit claims that the airing of the 911 call caused Zimmerman emotional distress, and exposed him to “public contempt, ridicule, hatred and threats to his life,” and “conveyed the impression that Zimmerman is a hostile ‘racist’ who shot Trayvon Martin because the young man was African American.”

“NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, and so set about to create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain,” the suit stated. “The goal was simple: keep their viewers alarmed, and thus always watching, by menacing them with a reprehensible series of imaginary and exaggerated racist claims.”

His suit outlines how the 911 call was edited. On one of the NBC News broadcasts, on “Today” on March 27, Zimmerman is heard on the call telling the dispatcher, of Martin, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”

But Zimmerman did not say the two sentences in sequence. His comment, “He looks black,” was made after the dispatcher asked him if Martin was “white, black or Hispanic?”

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  1. Daniel says:

    Zimmerman was made a celebrity by the media and chiefly by NBC reporting giving the impression that he was a racist. That report was promulgated by other media outlets and one of the chief reasons, in my estimation, that we are having the problems we are having with the mobs in the streets.
    Media, and especially those purporting to report the news, should remember that objectivity is the gold standard and when you become part of the story you are no longer objective.

  2. ertdfg says:

    ‘He believes that Zimmerman “is almost certainly going to fall into the classification” of a public figure’

    Why is he a public figure? BECAUSE the media made him one, while defaming him.

    So they can defame anyone, so long as they give him enough publicity to make him a “public figure” which justifies their defamation?

    Defamation is legal, but only if you really spread the word widely so everyone know who you’re defaming?

    I’d recommend avoiding a jury trial with that argument. Maybe a Lawyer or Judge would buy it, but I doubt a Jury of people with just common sense instead of legal training will be persuaded by that argument.

  3. Dennis says:

    NBC was wrong. Hope they have to pay big bucks to Zimmerman.

  4. Dan Hydar says:

    ‘… Zimmerman “is almost certainly going to fall into the classification” of a public figure,….’
    Actually, Zimmerman was not a “public figure” at all ’till NBC decied to vilify him on a national stage. Zimmerman was just some unknown schmoe. Does anyone really think it’s fair to allow massivbe media outlets to simply pick a citizen and target him with “vilified public figure” status?

  5. neb says:

    sad for trayvon

  6. Bill says:

    This sort of behavior is nothing new for NBC. They’ve been caught manufacturing and outright lying so many times. It is endemic to the network – no scruples – none – zero – zilch.

    The Supreme Court needs to revisit this issue, especially when the issue at bar involves the manipulation of images and/or the selective editing of recordings. Time to bring truth and fairness back to the media and there’s nothing like a $100MM verdict to stop these unethical parasites.

  7. Connie says:

    Bull…it won’t fly. NBC has billions and better lawyers. But I hope he does get some money from NBC..they won’t miss it..that way when the Martin’s win the civil case against Zimmerman..they can take his money.

    • Jim W says:

      Unlikely the Martins will win any civil case. In fact, based on recent reports, Zimmerman could potentially sue THEM because Martin was under the impression that Zimmerman was a “gay rapist” and that Martin commited a hate crime by assaulting a person who he thought to be gay.

      Here, read it for yourself. Better still, google “Zimmerman gay rapist”. You’ll be surprised at what you find.

  8. Eboneezet Goode says:

    He won’t get a fine either way. You have any idea how hard it is to prove a defamation case once you’re in the publi eye? If they out and out called him a racist murderer and then continued to attack his character ten maybe MAYBE you could prove it. Otherwise fox and friends in the right would have been out of business a lo g time ago for everything they say about every liberal or dem out there.

  9. Pamela Green says:

    SHAME on NBC!!!! When everybody is already SO SICK of the media. Seriously, is there NO honesty in journalism?

  10. EK says:

    Reminiscent of the Atlanta bombing initial injustice. The media will do almost anything in pursuit of an audience and punditry is the worst offender. We have a legal system, for good or ill, to adjudicate such matters; it’s not the media’s job.

  11. Michele says:

    After stooping to such low tactics, as “editing” tapes, and whipping up racial tension to play on a media “story” to pump up ratings, NBC needs to change it’s logo from (once) proud peacock to scavaging vulture! My apologies to vultures, who are only doing what comes naturally – a service to the environment! Unfortunately, our media, for the most part, have abandoned “their” service – to report truth and stay neutral in their reporting! God help America! And.. btw, NBC will no longer be an option in MY television viewing!

  12. Mike says:

    Zimmerman will have to prove malice on the part of the reporters because he is a public figure. He became a “public figure” *because* of the story and how it was presented. Does the malice standard still apply?

  13. Marie says:

    what garbage NBC’s lawyers are spewing. Of course it is defamation and it caused great harm to George Zimmerman and his family with death threats etc…it also caused great harm to the citizens of the United States Of America. NBC should lose all licenses be put out of business and anyone affiliated with them should not be allowed in any form of journalism ever again. That is my verdict you racists against the white race.

  14. John says:

    I don’t agree with the professor. Generally, the media can’t claim someone is a public figure if they are the reason he became one. Certainly, no one knew who George Zimmerman was before the media started reporting on it (and the fact that it was activists who brought the story to the media’s attention doesn’t really let the media off the hook–repeating libel makes you just as liable as the person who originally said it). And he didn’t “thrust himself” into a preexisting controversy. He did give statements to the media, but that was only after he had already been libeled. If he’s not a public figure, he only needs to prove negligence, and that’s a slam dunk. Even if it’s actual malice, there was an intentional edit of the tape. Seems like he has at least a decent case either way.

    As for the other elements of defamation, publication and identification are clearly met. Defamatory content is a bit trickier, since opinions (e.g. “he’s a racist”) are generally not held to be libelous. On the other hand, they claimed that he said Martin was suspicious *because* he was black. And they did so by intentionally editing a tape. That is easily disprovable, and I’d argue that it is defamatory. Finally, there’s actual damages. Well, if not for the media, there may well have never been a trial at all, let alone one that cost Zimmerman hundreds of thousands in legal fees (I imagine Zimmerman’s lawyers would use the original prosecutors as witnesses to this). Not to mention the severe damage to Zimmerman’s reputation. I guess we’ll have to see, but I definitely think Zimmerman has enough to at least go to trial with his defamation suit.

  15. Curbcooler says:

    Does this mean Fox ews an also be sued for all the many tapes
    They have censored?

    • sumosumo says:

      NBC owned by Comcast = very deep pockets. Zimmmerman has an excellent case. NBC’s firing of the crew that created that deceitful tape admits NBC’s culpability. And the deceitful tape was made with an eye on ratings/$.
      NBC created a race case & GZ’s life is forever altered for the worse… until he gets the multimillions from Comcast/NBC.
      I used to watch Brian Williams… now his voice makes my skin crawl because of association to this tape. I avoid Comcast/NBC at every turn.
      Journalistic ethics have been traded for hype in most of the media.

    • Ken says:

      Any news agency that distorts the facts for their own personal gain should be held accountable.

      • Jaroslaw says:

        HIs life will be forever altered whether he wins or not. I hope he takes NBC to the cleaners. They knew EXACTLY what they did.

    • Mike Johnson says:

      Mr. Lumex, you failed to mention those edited comments. Would that be because there are none??
      I hope and pray that George Zimmerman sues for Billions!!!!!!!!!!!

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