Why the Right-Wing Media Spent 16 Months Smearing a Dead Teenager
Appearing on Fox & Friends in the wake of a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, Geraldo Rivera's claim that Martin brought about his own death by dressing in a hooded sweatshirt the night of the killing was shocking, but not surprising. Echoing earlier comments he made on the program, Rivera proclaimed: "You dress like a thug, people are going to treat you like a thug."
It was shocking because the idea of a well-paid commentator going on television and blaming an unarmed teen for being shot while walking home inside a gated community because he wore a hoodie -- because he tried to look like "a thug" as Rivera put it -- is repellent.
So yes, Rivera's comments were shockingly awful and irresponsible. As was his claim that the all-female jury "would have shot and killed Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did." But his comments weren't surprising, because Fox News and too much of the right-wing media have spent the last 16 months zeroing in on the memory of a dead teenager and doing their best to denigrate it.
Apart from the far right's gleeful and disrespectful response to the not guilty verdict, there remains a separate thread of loud tastelessness that dates back to 2012 and focuses on the victim for all the wrong reasons, suggesting he somehow got what he deserved. (Or what he "sought.")
Remember the fake, menacing photo of Martin that right-wing sites passed around last year? And when The Daily Caller published tweets from the slain boy's closed Twitter account? Tweets that conservatives then used to portray the teen as a thug?
This week, Fox favorite Ten Nugent practically danced on Martin's grave, accusing the dead teenager of being a "dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe" who was "responsible" for being shot by a volunteer neighborhood watchman on the night of February 26, 2012.
Comments by Rivera, Nugent and others were proof that a smear campaign was in full swing this week and a reminder the attacks are a continuation of the foul smears first unleashed in the wake of the killing. At the time, the attacks were an ugly attempt to justify Martin's death, to shift the blame away from the gunman, Zimmerman, and to cloud the debate about Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law. (Rivera in 2012: "I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was.")
Trayvon Martin deserves better. Indeed, every victim, and particularly every victim of gun violence in America, deserves better than to have a well-funded media machine like the one led by Fox News targeting shooting victims for endless attacks on their character and on the choices, large and small, they made while alive.
There's something spectacularly misguided about wanting to turn an unarmed shooting victim, an unarmed minor, into the bad guy and blame him for walking home with Skittles and an iced tea. But that's what conservatives in the press have been doing, on and off, for nearly a year and a half now.
Recall the Slate headline from March, 2012, highlighting the trend: "When in Doubt, Smear the Dead Kid."
Yet one of the puzzling questions surrounding the public saga of Martin's death has always been why the partisan, conservative political movement in America, led by its powerful media outlets, felt the need to become so deeply invested in the case, and felt so strongly about defending the shooter, as well as demeaning the victim.
I understand why civil rights leaders who traditionally lean to the left politically embraced the case, why they saw it as part of a long history of injustice for blacks, and why they urged that Zimmerman be charged with a crime. But why did GOP bloggers, pundits and talk show hosts eventually go all in with their signature brand of hate for a local crime story?
As Kevin Drum wrote at Mother Jones last year:
There's no special conservative principle at stake that says neighborhood watch captains should be able to shoot anyone who looks suspicious. There's no special conservative principle at stake that says local police forces should barely even pretend to investigate the circumstances of a shooting. There's no special conservative principle at stake that says young black men shouldn't wear hoodies.
And if you go back and look at the coverage of the Martin story as it began to unfold nationally in the winter of 2012, the conservative media, including Fox News, were especially slow to take interest in the matter. That's in part, I suspect, because there was no natural angle to pursue. As Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab wroteat the time, there was "no good way for gun proponents to spin the death of an unarmed teenager." The Martin killing didn't fit the far right's usual narrative about violence and minorities and how white America is allegedly under physical assault from Obama's violent African-American base.
At the time, National Review editor Rich Lowry even wrote a blog post headlined "Al Sharpton is right," agreeing that Zimmerman should be charged with the killing of Martin. (Lowry slammed the shooter's "stupendous errors in judgment" that fateful night.)
That same day, on March 23, President Obama answered a direct question about the controversy and said, "My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." That quickly sparked a mindless right-wing media stampede as Obama Derangement Syndrome kicked in. "Once Obama spoke out, caring about Martin became a 'Democratic' issue, and Republicans felt not just free but obligated to fling all sorts of shit," Alex Pareene wrote last year at Salon.
Pledging to uncover the "truth" about the shooting victim and determined to prove definitively that anti-black racism doesn't exists in America (it's a political tool used by liberals, Republican press allies insist), many in the right-wing media have dropped any pretense of mourning Martin's death and set out to show how he probably deserved it.
Along with the fake photo of Martin being passed around online, chatter about his alleged drug-dealing past, and his teenage Tweets being dissected, bloggers also pushed the phony claim that a photo of Martin used by the news media had been lightened to make him look more "innocent." (The charge was bogus.)
Then Glenn Beck's The Blaze published a laundry list of criminal offenses Martin may have committed while he was alive:
• Aggravated assault
• Aggravated battery against a non-staff member
• Armed robbery
• Assault/Threat against M-DCPS employees or persons conducting official business
• Battery or Aggravated battery against M-DCPS employees or persons conducting official business*
• Making a false report/threat against the school*
• Sexual battery
• Possession, use, sale, or distribution of firearms, explosives, destructive devices, and other weapons.
It was a textbook example of trying to blame the victim. And it's the miserable course Rivera, Nugent and others continued this week.