By Chez Pazienza: It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that somebody at NBC was going to lose a job over the galactic fuck-up that led to a severely edited 911 call from Trayvon Martin shooter George Zimmerman making air. Well, late last week NBC — after undertaking what it called a painstaking internal investigation — canned a Miami-based producer, specifically the producer who edited the call. For those who haven’t been paying close attention, the Today show ran the clip, which featured George Zimmerman seeming to suggest, without prompting, that Trayvon Martin was suspicious because he was black: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good; he looks black,” Zimmerman said in the recording. The problem is that the dispatcher askedZimmerman for a description of Martin, leading to his statement that the teenager looked black — only that part inexplicably got cut from the tape. It took all of about ten seconds for the Breitbart empire of non-journalistic shit and pencil-neck twerp Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center to pounce on NBC for what they believed was a willful attempt by the network to inflame racial tension and further besmirch the good name of George Zimmerman.
In response, NBC did a lot of public hand-wringing — much of it prompted not by outside pressure but by the fact that there are in fact quite a few excellent journalists within the halls of 30 Rock who take their ethics very seriously — culminating in the firing of the person at the very bottom of the scandal. Sure, he or she screwed up big time, but the question remains as to why so many checks and balances failed and so many managers missed a cataclysmic mistake like a false and potentially inflammatory edit in such a sensitive story. Needless to say, none of those managers has lost his or her job — and NBC News President Steve Capus in particular gets to order an underling to do the beheading of the lowly ranger while escaping King Ned Stark’s eventual fate himself.
Having worked in one newsroom or another for years, and at NBC in particular for most of my career, I’ve witnessed firsthand the kind of tunnel vision and focused group-think that can lead to a mistake like this being made. I’ve watched huge errors somehow go unnoticed by every single person in the room — mistakes simply slip through the cracks. No system is foolproof, particularly not when that system is designed to function at full capacity 24/7; people make the machine run, and those people are human — they screw up. That said, heads do need to roll when a screw-up of this magnitude is allowed to occur. And when I say heads, I mean heads — plural. It was certainly the individual producer’s responsibility to cut the clip so that it told the story correctly, but there ostensibly should’ve been at least a few people over his or her pay grade who are allowed in the building specifically to double-check people’s work. And those people fucked up as well. I obviously wasn’t privy to results of NBC’s “internal investigation,” but I find it hard to believe that a clip went from the hands of a Miami-based producer directly to the Today show’s air without ever running a gauntlet of proofs.
The X-factor in all of this, though — the very reason conservative watchdog groups were kind of within their right to pounce and question whether the edit really was an innocent mistake — is NBC’s ongoing affair with Al Sharpton. It’s no secret that those members of the rank and file at NBC who bristle at the thought that a misleading piece can make air are really irked that their bosses continue to see nothing wrong with diminishing NBC’s already tarnished reputation by allowing one of MSNBC’s anchors to play the part of an activist in a story he’s covering nightly. NBC always knew something like this was coming; in fact, there’s an argument to be made that it was banking, literally and figuratively, on Sharpton’s adamantium-hulled ego supplanting any sense of journalistic ethics he may have at the first sign of a race-related story he could insert himself into. NBC was well aware from the start what it was getting itself into by getting into bed with Sharpton, and he should’ve always been treated as off-limits — not simply because of his history of horseshit shenanigans but because he can’t string three words together without tripping over his own tongue and any space made for him was a space not made for a real journalist. As long as NBC allows Sharpton to pull double duty as host and advocate, it’s going to face criticism and its product will be looked at with suspicion.
One more thing: On that note, and in NBC’s defense, it’s worth mentioning the obvious difference between a network like NBC and, say, Fox News. Maybe the outside pressure did have something to do with the peacock’s quick and decisive reaction to this little scandal, but imagine for a moment if it had been Fox that aired a misleading piece of video — one that would have some accusing the network of intentionally attempting to deceive the public. Imagine how Fox would’ve almost certainly reacted. How it’s reacted in the past. It wouldn’t have given a shit what anybody thought. There would’ve been no internal investigation. No transparent hand-wringing. No one would’ve been fired. Fox would’ve circled the wagons and told everybody outside to piss off.
NBC may have made a mistake — and maybe it hasn’t taken enough action in the wake of it — but there are enough people inside 30 Rock who care that their work is taken seriously and who worry about whether they’re operating in an ethical manner that they at least give a damn about trying to correct the problem.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.