George Zimmerman, the man at the center of the Trayvon Martin murder case, has just filed a defamation suit against NBC News for “alleging that the company’s editing of his voice on a 911 tape constituted defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress,” according to the NY Times.
NBC was criticized earlier this year for how it reported on Zimmerman’s 911 call:
The edits of a 911 audio recording — which removed an intervening question from the operator directly asking Mr. Zimmerman what race Mr. Martin was — occurred three times on NBC’s “Today” show, first on March 20 in a story by Lilia Luciano; on March 22 in another story by Ms. Luciano; and again on March 27 in a story by Ron Allen.
In Ms. Luciano’s first report, Mr. Zimmerman’s words to the 911 operator were: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He looks black.” In fact, Zimmerman told the operator: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” When the dispatcher said, “O.K., and this guy — is he white, black or Hispanic?” Zimmerman then said, “He looks black.”
At first glance, Zimmerman probably has a reasonable shot at winning this lawsuit. But, it will likely hinge on what the journalists who made the report say under oath during the discovery process.
In order to win a libel case in the US, the plaintiff must probe three things:
- That the information presented was false
- That it was disseminated
- That it caused injury.
The last two are pretty easy to prove. The “falseness” of the report is debatable, but a jury could conceivably agree that the way the 911 call was edited made it look like Zimmerman was villainous, and therefore “untrue.”
Assuming he clears those hurdles, Zimmerman’s lawyers would then have to prove that NBC news was either negligent (if he’s deemed a private figure) or acting with “actual malice” (if he’s deemed a public figure.)
In this case, Zimmerman could argue that he was a private figure at the time because he hadn’t attempted to gain attention from the press.
Therefore, he must only prove that the press didn’t behave according to normal newsroom standards (negligence) instead of proving that they knowingly disregarded the truth (“actual malice.”)
Given these facts, Zimmerman could win this suit if the journalists at NBC testify under oath that they deviated from normal newsroom practices in putting together the story. For instance, if one or several journalists had suggested that the editing wasn’t ethical and this input was ignored, then that could be grounds for negligence (or even actual malice.) Or if only one journalist listened to the 911 tapes and handled the editing on his or her own without any supervision, then that also could be considered negligent.
In the end, NBC News may simply settle the matter out of court, a move they made with the falsely accused Olympic bomber Richard Jewel. They wouldn’t settle because they decided they couldn’t win, but because it’s not worth the money to pay lawyers to fight the case.
Either way, it would be a mistake to view Zimmerman’s defamation lawsuit as a ridiculous longshot.