From April 29 through May 4, 1992, Los Angeles experienced the worst rioting anywhere in the United States since 1963. These riots were a response to the acquittal of four mostly white police officers who had been charged with assault and the use of excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King, an African-American parolee who had fled from the police at speeds up to 115 mph through the streets of Los Angeles.
The American public was treated to days of videos of shocking violence. Fifty-four people died and over two thousand were injured; property damage estimates exceeded one billion dollars. Reginald Denny was beaten nearly to death, his attackers caught on video as they “repeatedly kicked and stomped him, smashed his head with a claw hammer and threw a five-pound oxygenator…at his head,” according to Ann Coulter in her book, Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama. One attacker, Damian Williams, then flung a slab of concrete on his head, “knocking him unconscious for five minutes and fracturing his skill in ninety-one places.” (Mugged, 121) Williams then treated the hovering news chopper to a victory dance, complete with gang signs as he danced around Denny’s body. And who can forget the images of the Korean storekeepers on the roofs of their buildings with shotguns, trying to protect their livelihood from the marauding thugs who took the opportunity to steal, destroy and assault anyone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Why did this happen? Why did so many African-Americans react this way to the verdict? Ann Coulter lays the blame squarely at the feet of the media, in particular the local news station, KTLA. Part of the Rodney King arrest and beating was recorded by a resident of a nearby apartment building, George Holliday. KTLA played that tape over and over, showing what was clearly a brutal beating of Rodney King by the police. Unfortunately for Los Angeles and the residents of the soon-to-be riot-torn South Central LA, KTLA was not completely honest in their presentation of the video. They left out the first thirteen seconds of the video, which included Rodney King’s last lunge at the police officers before they started what was described by Coulter as “a by-the-book procedure for subduing aggressive suspects without killing them.” The video and media reports also did not include King’s bizarre behavior with the police officers prior to the beating. KTLA and other media outlets presented the King incident as pure racism and police brutality, while the jurors and others party to the trial heard the whole story and acquitted the four officers, setting off days of brutal violence and destruction.
KTLA won a Peabody award for its presentation of the Rodney King tape. Twenty years later, in an article celebrating “caught on tape” journalism, KTLA reporter Stan Chambers commented, “When it happened, and you have video, it’s your responsibility to share this with those who are watching.” Is it not also your responsibility, Mr. Chambers, to report the entire truth and not slant it to fit your own narrative? Are you not at all embarrassed that your presentation of the story fanned the flames of the LA riots by creating an expectation that the four police officers would be convicted?
It looks like the media have learned nothing from the riots in 1992.We are now in the second week of Florida’s latest show trial, State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman, and the jury selection is moving along, providing entertainment and discussion fodder for those of us who are watching the trial gavel to gavel. Leading up to the trial, however, the media have engaged in its same old tricks, trying to portray this as a racial attack, with George Zimmerman intent on killing young Trayvon Martin only because he was black. NBC edited the 911 tape to make it sound like the shooter was a racist. Local and national media outlets used outdated photographs of both Zimmerman and Martin; Zimmerman’s was an old mug shot complete with orange jumpsuit, and Martin’s was several years old, showing a cute, innocent looking kid. While NBC has been exposed for its subterfuge and more up-to-date photos have come to light of both Zimmerman and Martin, those early images endure in the minds of many.
When a jury is finally seated, will they look at all the evidence and decide that Zimmerman is guilty, or will they see a legitimate instance of self-defense? Both juries in the Rodney King saga decided that racism was not a factor in the beating. The police department and even Rodney King himself concluded that his race was not a factor in the confrontation. The media pushed the racism narrative, over and over, and they are doing it again. By the media’s treatment of this case as a trial about race, are those who support Trayvon Martin being set up to be disappointed in the verdict? Does “justice for Trayvon” include the possibility that Zimmerman’s story is the truth and he should be acquitted, or is there only one right verdict?
If George Zimmerman is acquitted and Sanford and the local metropolitan area erupts in violence and flames, will the media even acknowledge their role in fanning the flames? Probably not. They will most likely give us great coverage of the events and pat themselves on the back for the excellent job they did in predicting that, yes, Central Florida is racist and there is no “justice for Trayvon.”