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George Zimmerman Verdict Propels Cable News Into Talkradio Mode

Fox News, MSNBC coverage showcase how political polarization permeated the case

Trayvon Martin was the first casualty in the George Zimmeran case, but restraint, on the news media’s part, was clearly the second, as cable news once again established it is less news, in the traditional sense, than talkradio with pictures, with all its storm and bombast.

Zimmerman was found not guilty on Saturday night in the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, in another racially polarizing trial that caused pundits — on the right and the left — to fall into their familiar stance of immediately choosing up sides, turning any dispute into an extension of the last election, or a precursor to the next one.

That left Fox News Channel largely defending Zimmerman because all the usual suspects its high-profile talent hates favored his conviction (and President Obama had the audacity to weigh in); MSNBC focusing on unequal justice toward African-Americans and the flaws associated with “Stand your ground” laws; CNN barking after the case with a horde of media analysts; and HLN foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog, which is now its customary, stomach-turning profile.

CNN chief Jeff Zucker was quoted by the AP’s David Bauder as saying he felt his network had struck the proper balance in covering the trial, but honestly, what was he going to say? “We’ve pandered for ratings, and hey, it worked!”

Much of the immediate coverage Saturday was devoted to press conferences with the respective attorneys, as well as those representing Martin’s family. But one can only imagine the torrent of analysis that will follow, and the inevitable scrum for Zimmerman to do his first big post-trial interview. (One suspects Fox’s Sean Hannity would be in the driver’s seat, ready to pitch more softballs in his direction.)

The verdict “feels very much as though it is saying it is acceptable, it is OK, to kill an unarmed African-American child who has committed no crime,” said MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry on Saturday night.

Over on Fox News, Geraldo Rivera — who had suggested the jurors would have shot Martin themselves under similar circumstances — argued the charges against Zimmerman were filed “because of outside political pressure. … Politics and justice just should not mix.”

Rivera then went on to make an astonishing, completely unfounded assumption, asking Fox’s Juan Williams, “Why are most black people disappointed who are following this case, and most white people relieved?”

Thanks for speaking for “white people” and “black people,” Geraldo. (Williams challenged the premise of his statement, by the way, and Rivera immediately acted indignantly like the pundit was twisting his words, which he wasn’t.)

And so it goes. It’s facile in a case like this to say there were no winners, but from a media perspective, that’s simply not true. Just witness the horde of lawyers who lined up to get their 15 minutes (or more) of media fame, and the spike in ratings that the wall-to-wall coverage yielded.

Similarly, talkradio dove into the Zimmerman trial with its customary and predictable gusto.

“It’s going to defy any logic if we don’t see him go to jail for 25 years,” said liberal talkradio host Randi Rhodes, shortly before the case went to the jury.

Yet in a case like this, logic is very much in the eye of the beholder. And because of that — and the toxic nature of the current media environment — while the trial might be over, the shouting never ends.

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