What is the job of the media? Are we here to reflect public opinion or to shape it? Are we the impartial referees of society, or do we pick sides and play as rough as the next guy?
In a world where anyone with an idea and an internet connection can impact public discourse for better or worse, who exactly “is” the media and what is our role in telling the stories that matter most?
Last week, I interviewed George Zimmerman, who was accused and acquitted of the murder of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
I am not impartial.
I believe Zimmerman got away with murder, aided and abetted by a justice system that does not have equal regard for the lives of black and minority youth, and further empowered by self-defense laws that have given citizens of certain states an effective license to kill their neighbors, provided those neighbors are young, black and preferably unarmed.
I think George Zimmerman should not be walking free, carrying a weapon and doing interviews to explain his “side of the story,” an opportunity Trayvon Martin can never have.
He should be in jail. And I have little doubt that a black man who shot and killed an unarmed white or Anglo/Peruvian teen here in Florida (or anywhere else in the United States) would be behind bars already. The claim of self-defense is not a luxury afforded equally to black defendants, as suggested by the case of Marissa Alexander, whose conviction and 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband is currently awaiting retrial.
So why interview George Zimmerman, one of the most hated men in the United States, potentially exacerbating the Martin family’s pain and invoking public ire? Why give him a platform to speak, when Trayvon most certainly cannot?
I could give you a variety of reasons I believe are valid: we’re the media; it’s our job; people want to know; we have questions, and so on.
But the biggest reason for me personally? I did the interview because this story is not over. It began long before I was born, but like many, I am committed to resolving it in my lifetime.
When I heard the news of Zimmerman’s acquittal last summer, I told a friend that it was now officially open season on black youth in Florida. This sentiment, shared by many in the black community, was predictably dismissed by those who make a point of arguing overreaction when we draw attention to injustice. But they don’t see an unarmed black teen killed by a “frightened” white man as an overreaction. Days after we conducted our interview with Zimmerman, a jury in Jacksonville, Florida, deadlocked on a charge of murder in the killing of unarmed black youth Jordan Davis by white driver Michael Dunn.
Jordan’s crime? Playing loud “thug music.”
In the days when Emmett Till was mutilated and murdered by racist thugs, the American South was a place where whites could effectively take black lives with impunity. The application of justice is still unequal today, but, decades after the civil rights movement, much of the fear in the black community has been redirected toward the authorities rather than our fellow citizens.
The killing of Amadou Diallo, the rape and torture of Abner Louima, the murders of Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and who knows how many faceless others; the ongoing harassment and physical abuse of countless black males, myself included, have led us to rightfully fear any, and nearly every, interaction with police.
For months we’ve been reporting on the killing of Colombian teen Israel Hernandez, who died after he was hit with a stun gun by Miami Beach police. The story has gotten little attention from national media and even fewer answers from public officials.
What should be a human rights embarrassment in any nation is a simple fact of life for people of color in the U.S., especially for African-Americans and particularly for black men.
And yet today something even more wicked this way comes. The U.S. is retrenching to the days of Jim Crow, where once again a black man does not have rights a white man is bound to respect — at least not the right to life that so many Americans fervently purport to revere. As we’ve learned from the cases of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn, it’s OK to shoot an unarmed black child in Florida, so long as you kill him. That way when you woefully explain to the world how you feared for your life at the hands of that dangerous Negro, he can’t explain that he too feared for his when facing your firearm with nothing more than his flesh and blood.
Our humanity begs for something more. I interviewed George Zimmerman for the same reasons journalists have interviewed Charles Manson, that Barbara Walters interviewed Muammar Ghaddafi and Fidel Castro. I sat down across from him and politely asked the questions I wanted answers to. And maybe I simply wanted to look in the eyes of the killer and see if I could perceive an ounce of remorse. I found none. Instead, I saw a man convinced that indeed, he is the victim. And, perhaps, even a hero.
I’m sure some people will be fascinated to hear his comments, while others refuse to watch. I’ve already had critics challenge both my ethics and “Blackness” for conducting the interview. But at the end of the day, I cannot accept that an African-American journalist is any less capable of conducting him or herself with the professionalism and composure that the job demands, regardless of my personal sentiments. And I believe that as a young black male, I too have a role to play in holding people like Zimmerman accountable, if only in the court of public opinion.
This is the work of the media and whoever lays claim to being a part of it. We are here to peel back the layers of our world in an effort to reveal to society the truth about itself.
Perhaps the question that matters most is whether or not American society is willing to see that truth, and strive to become something better than what we are.
This piece was updated on Feb. 18 at 11:40 a.m.
More from Fusion’s Derrick Ashong interview with George Zimmerman:
Editor’s note: Fusion reached out to the Martin family and their attorney for comment, but did not receive a response by publication time.