Why is Cable News So Obsessed with the Zimmerman Trial?

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George Zimmerman arrives for his trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. Thursday, July 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Gary W. Green, Pool)

If you have cable television in your home, you probably know more than you want to know about the trial of George Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin. But you may still be wondering why this story has attracted so much attention from the media. We called Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert for a critique of the coverage.

Lauren Feeney: Why are the 24-hour news stations so obsessed with this trial?

Eric Boehlert: It’s easy, it’s summer, and it’s lazy — a simple way to be able to cover the same story over and over for two or three weeks. In the old days, unless it was the O.J. Simpson trial, news channels would never give up hour after hour of daytime or primetime to cover a courtroom event. The feeling was, “That’s not really journalism and that’s not why we’re in the news business.” But slowly but surely, the cable news channels have decided to do exactly that. Each year, they seem to pick three or four of these trials and almost randomly devote way too much time to them. Now they’ve decided to do it with the Zimmerman trial, which at its core is a much more serious and important event —- the societal and legal implications are much more important and sober than some of the other celebrity trials that they’ve embraced.

Feeney: Is the coverage any good?  Are they getting at some of the deeper social issues?

Boehlert: No, and that’s the problem. It’s being trivialized. I don’t know how many times you can replay a 911 call and try to determine who’s yelling for help. Was it Trayvon Martin?  Was it George Zimmerman? It’s unlikely we’ll ever have an answer to that question, and yet it’s just hour after hour after hour. The context gets completely lost. The reason the story took on national implications and the reason why there was so much raw emotion last year when the shooting first happened is that a grown man admitted to killing an unarmed black teen and wasn’t charged with any crime. The trial itself is not really that interesting. The trial is not what sparked the controversy and all the raw emotion last year.

Feeney: As I recall, when Trayvon Martin was first killed, it was a story that was mostly covered by the progressive press and focused on the social implications. Now Fox News is advertising “gavel to gavel coverage.” What happened? How did it turn from the Trayvon Martin — the story of the untimely death of a black teenager — to the George Zimmerman story?

Boehlert: I think you’re absolutely right — a lot of the progressive, liberal opinion media was outraged about the story and wrote about it. Maybe the reason they’re not writing about the trial is that so much of the outrage was about the fact that no one had been charged. How can someone admit to killing an unarmed teen, someone who was told by a 911 dispatcher to sit in his car and yet pursued this person and then ended up killing him — how can there be no charge whatsoever? Manslaughter, anything. That was the controversy. They wanted this to be played out in court. They wanted there to be some accountability. So now that there’s a trial — trials are trials and it’s up to the jury.

For Fox it’s always been the George Zimmerman story. It’s always been about George Zimmerman and his innocence and how liberals are whipping up the controversy. Remember, George Zimmerman gave an interview to Sean Hannity last year. Hannity stepped forward as his unofficial defense attorney. Rush Limbaugh has talked about Obama wanted to foment racial unrest. They see the Zimmerman trial, and the issue of race generally, through the prism of their hatred of Obama. So in the right-wing media there has been kind of a meltdown over the trial that’s tapping into the sort of hysterical racial fears that they like to whip up.

Feeney: What are some of the stories that have been overlooked in the interest of this wall-to-wall coverage of this Zimmerman trial?

Boehlert: CNN got in trouble with the blogosphere when there was what basically amounted to a military coup in Egypt. Yes, they covered it, but they seemed awfully interested in going back to a trial about a person being killed in Florida. CNN in the past absolutely owned foreign news, particularly Middle East news. Fox News barely even has a bureau there. That was why CNN was created, for these international crises.

Immigration reform is another incredibly important story, and Media Matters has written regularly about how economic news in general just has completely fallen off a lot of the mainstream media radar, and particularly the cable channels.

One other thing I would say about the wall-to -wall coverage is that defenders would say, “Well, the ratings are up.” As though that proves that Americans are fascinated with this trial. But if you look at the ratings, the boost that CNN’s gotten is very modest. They’re doing a primetime show every night, sort of a recap. It’s getting an audience of 4–500,000 viewers in a nation of 330 million people. That might be up 15 percent from what they had in that timeslot, but let’s not pretend that the cable news channels are responding to this massive outpouring of interest from the general public. I just don’t think it’s there.

Feeney: What does the coverage of this trial tell you about the state of journalism today?

Boehlert: I think that they’re looking for the easy fix, and if it means flicking the switch and just taking a courtroom feed for hour after hour, they will do that.

Eric Boehlert is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press. He worked for five years as a senior writer for Salon.com, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. Boehlert has a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern studies from the University of Massachusetts and is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America.
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