So let me get this straight. An overzealous neighborhood watchman of Hispanic descent shoots an unarmed black kid, and white culture is to blame? That seemed to be the argument in Michael Skolnik’s opportunistic, perversely reasoned, poorly written viral column about the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Then CNN and MSNBC happily picked up the thread and sped the argument forthwith to Crazyland.
MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, never content to let crazy go unamplified, called the unfolding Martin saga “the Emmett Till moment of our time.” Let’s take a look at that.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old black kid who was brutally murdered in 1955 for the social outrage of flirting with a married, white grocery store clerk. The ensuing trial captured the imagination of a segregated America, sparking outrage when an all-white jury found the accused murderers innocent. Further horror, shame and disbelief swept white America and challenged the South’s racist social mores when the accused killers, protected from justice by double jeopardy, confessed to Life magazine that they had, in fact, murdered Emmett Till and, further, that they didn’t think they had done anything wrong. The Till saga added a spark to an already thriving civil rights movement and helped turn it into a nationwide conflagration that would change America forever.
So why is Ed Schultz completely off his rocker when he compares Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till?
Because it’s 60 years later. Because a black man is in the White House. Because Herman Cain won presidential straw polls across the South. Because black men have held high leadership positions in both political parties. Because America isn’t a racist country anymore. Take “2001: A Space Odyssey” out of space and you’ve got a different movie. Schultz’s comparison is nuts because, in storytelling, the setting matters.
Beyond that, the only thing Martin has in common with Till is that it appears he was murdered. The facts aren’t in. His Hispanic alleged assailant hasn’t even been charged with a crime. But even if George Zimmerman did kill Trayvon Martin, even if the Ku Klux Klan relaxed their admission requirements and coronated Zimmerman as their first Latino grand wizard, what would it mean?
There were 987 murders in Florida in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Each murder was assuredly tragic for families and communities, but in a state with a population of over 19 million, Florida’s murder rate isn’t even in the nation’s top ten. So why is this one tragedy among many getting so much national attention?
The first answer is that it’s easy. After working in media for four years on both sides of the desk, I can say with certainty that the modern media’s biggest bias is toward laziness. With notable exceptions, many reporters would like nothing better than to have a story fall into their laps — no research required. Making George Zimmerman the monster-du-jour with a backdrop of racism and a social justice motif eats up airtime, fills columns and helps lazy reporters get through their days. The stories write themselves — the truth be damned.
A better answer is ratings. Americans can still feel and hear the reverberating echoes from the horror that was slavery. Nearly half of our living citizens lived through the civil rights movement. And Hollywood films and TV shows have properly kept younger Americans aware of our nation’s past sins, so that we may not repeat them. In short, racism sells. Despite decades of societal healing, Americans are forever cognizant of and extremely sensitive to racial issues. Whether they pertain to crime or Hollywood or the rewriting of “Huckleberry Finn,” Americans will pay attention to racially divisive stories.