Monday, March 26, 2012

Will Geraldo Shoot Me If I Wear My Hoodie?

Gerald Michael Rivera, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, the son of a cab driver and waitress Lillian Friedman, who changed his name to Geraldo and “went ethnic” to create a TV persona that included the infamous Al Capone vault exposé (a live hour of television devoted to discovering Capone’s much hyped secret vault contained nothing more than an empty beer bottle), admitted his comments on Trayvon Martin were “politically incorrect”. No, Gerry Rivers, they were just plain old stupid.

The once semi-respected journalist-turned-Fox News Channel commentator said Friday the hoodie worn by the unarmed black teenager when he was killed by a trigger-happy vigilante was as much responsible for his death as the man who shot him.

When I first heard this, I dismissed it as another pitiful attempt by an aging TV entertainer to capture a few headlines in the 24-hour news cycle and regain a smattering of relevance. After all, I seldom took Jerry Rivers and his brand of sensationalist journalism seriously when he was in his prime and while the Fox News Channel is the perfect outlet for someone of his caliber, I no more expect to view real news on Fox News than I expect to see a real fox stroll across the screen (the latter being far more likely).

Now, Rivera is entitled to his opinion, and far be it from me to impeach the credibility of a “journalist” fired from ABC News, dubbed by Newsweek as a “Trash TV” talk show host (Newsweek, Nov. 14, 1988, p. 78), who aired such classic fare as “Men in Lace Panties and the Women Who Love Them", lied about being at the scene of a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan when he was really 300 mile away, revealed military troop movements during the Iraq War, and currently hosts a daily radio show sandwiched between Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. I don’t need to impeach his credibility because he has done a far better job of that than I ever could.

But here’s the problem. While I believe in free speech and I believe Rivera has a right to his opinion, he has a much larger platform than most of us, myself included. That means his words are guaranteed to reach a massive audience and within that audience is a subset of listeners called “low information” viewers. These are people who don’t read in-depth newspaper and magazine articles for perspective on issues, or read books or encyclopedias to learn the background and nuances of issues, instead relying on snippets of news, headlines, “talking points” by biased commentators, and the echo chamber of biased news media (be it conservative talk radio and Fox on the right, or liberal publications and MSNBC on the left) that present only one perspective and repeatedly reinforce that perspective and only that perspective.

I was at Starbucks Sunday, editing a draft of the upcoming 7th edition of Issues In Internet Law, when I got pulled into a conversation with some nearby strangers discussing the Trayvon Martin case. One was a Jewish man in his late 60s, another a Hispanic man in his 40s, and the third, a white man in his mid-30s.  Mr. 40s insisted Martin, the unarmed teen walking home from a convenience store could have been at fault instead of the armed man stalking him because “no one knows what really happened.” I pointed out, as I did in my column the other day, we have a fairly detailed timeline showing him leaving the store, on the phone for four minutes with his girlfriend (verified by both her and phone company records) and his body found by police one minute after the end of that phone call (verified by police records). But Mr. 40s, a low-information viewer, dismissed these facts because they had not appeared in his universe of limited news. He relied on headlines and generalities to form his opinions, and argued “the case is being tried in the media”, preferring the media ignore the news story… as he has. I countered I would prefer to see the case tried in a court of law, not in the media, but that it was not possible for the killer to have his day in court if the police refused to arrest him.

“Whose side are you on?” Mr. 60s asked me.

“The side of justice,” I replied.

 He sneered at my answer.

I added, “A child was killed. Your friend says we don’t know what happened. That’s why the shooter should have been taken to the police station. He should have been tested to determine if he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The gun should have been retained by the police as evidence, not allowed to be kept by the shooter. A proper investigation should have been conducted, including canvassing of witnesses and forensic examination of the scene and the weapon. Then, based on that, a determination whether to charge the shooter for murder should have been made at that point. If an arrest was warranted and made, he should be entitled to have his day in court to explain or justify his actions. But that’s not what happened.”

Mr. 60s then gave me his misinterpretation of Florida law, a subject I know a bit about. Whenever I corrected him on blatant misstatements, he insisted he was right and I was wrong. There was no margin for error in his mind; his “knowledge” came direct from what he had gleaned from his low-information snippets. “Besides, the boy was wearing a hoodie. You know they dress that way because they want to be like gangsters. Running with his face covered in a ski mask, I’d be scared of him too. He (Zimmerman) had a right to shoot him to defend himself.”

“It wasn’t a ski mask,” I told the low-information viewer. “It didn’t cover his face. It’s a sweater with a hood. My mother bought me one for Christmas. The boy didn’t even pull the hood up until it started raining. He was walking, not running. And it wasn't self-defense.”

Mr. 60s was annoyed I had the temerity to bring facts into the conversation. The three men agreed Zimmerman had been justified in shooting Trayvon Martin, a boy armed only with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles candy, because he wore a hoodie. If it was a good enough justification for Geraldo Rivera on Fox News, it was good enough for them.

I nodded my understanding. “So clothes really do make the man?” I pointed to a young woman in a short skirt seated nearby. “So, if a woman’s miniskirt is short enough, she’s asking to be raped? If a man walks down the street in a suit and a Rolex, it serves him right if he gets mugged?”

“It wasn’t just the hoodie,” Mr. 30s chimed in. “He had baggy pants sagging like all the gangsters.”

I looked askance at him. “I’ve read a lot on the case and haven’t seen any descriptions of his pants. Where did you learn that?”

He shrugged. “I just heard, is all.”

I have jury duty on Thursday. The thought of low-information juries deciding people’s fates scares the hell out of me. Meantime, I’m heading back to Starbucks today. I’m going to pull my Christmas gift out of the closet, dust it off, and wear my hoodie. I hope I don’t get shot while sipping my Frappuccino and munching on Skittles. Thanks, Geraldo.

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