BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. On the evening of February 26th in a suburb of Orlando, Florida, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was shot and killed by a neighbor.
TRYMAINE LEE: Martin was at his stepmother’s. He went to buy some Skittles during halftime of the NBA All Star Game.
NEWS REPORTER: Neighborhood Watch Leader George Zimmerman called police to report a suspicious black man. Before police arrived, Zimmerman confronted the teenager and during the scuffle Zimmerman shot him in the chest, killing him.
NEWS REPORTER: But was it self-defense or murder in cold blood? The family of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin says it was murder, and there is new evidence that may help prove their case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Florida law establishes relatively broad latitude when it comes to killing in self-defense. In fact, self-defense does not even have to be proved. Floridians can “stand their ground” and shoot if they feel threatened, even in a public place. George Zimmerman was not charged or even arrested. This week a Federal investigation was launched. The police chief in Sanford County, where the killing took place, stepped down temporarily, and in New York protestors called for justice for Trayvon.
But for weeks the story earned very little national attention. The Huffington Post’s Trymaine Lee is one of the few reporters who covered the story early on, after local sources in Florida called him with some compelling details.
TRYMAINE LEE: You have an unarmed teenager who, by all accounts, was in an all-American boy. He had a pack of Skittles in his pocket. You have an armed neighborhood watch captain who’s in a gated community. Everything about this — the flags started going up, and I immediately knew this was something that was going to be important to our readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you got there, and that was long before the story made national news, did you notice a dearth of other reporters?
TRYMAINE LEE: It was just local TV reporters mostly, and there was a reporter from The Orlando Sentinel and an AP writer would show up from time to time. But at that, I didn’t see any wire stories coming out, really anything in depth at all. And I was pretty surprised because if there ever had been the perfect story to tell, it would be this one because even before we got to 911 tapes the basic details were so shocking, the basic details, I would imagine, would obviously resonate. But apparently, they didn’t.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think this didn’t register immediately?
TRYMAINE LEE: I think we’re still dealing with complications of race and stereotype, even within our newsrooms. And if you’ve ever spent any time in a newsroom, you do understand that we have that saying, “It’s a garden variety killing.” And, unfortunately, I think, just on the surface, this might have fallen into that category of “just another garden variety killing.”
But I think once the 911 tapes are released and you hear the sobs of the neighbors, you hear the gunshot, you hear what appear to be the cries for help and the pleas, the screams of what most of us assume is the young man’s screams, I think that’s the moment when it finally resonated; it was crystal clear who –
911 OPERATOR: 911, do you need Police, Fire or Medical?
FEMALE CALLER: I can’t see him. I don’t want to go out there, I don’t know what’s going on.
[SOUND OF MAN SCREAMING]
911 OPERATOR: Do you think he’s yelling “Help?”
FEMALE CALLER: Yes.
911 OPERATOR: All right, what is -
[SOUND OF GUNSHOT]
-your phone number, please?
FEMALE CALLER: There’s a gunshot.
[SOUND OF SCREAM][END CLIP]
TRYMAINE LEE: That, with the pictures that we’ve been circulating from the family of this young fresh-faced kid, the details of this 28-year-old man who, you know, outweighed him by a hundred pounds, once we started getting those details, and that’s when the media realized like, okay, we better hop on this. And also, social media – friends by the thousands were sharing this with their circles. And that’s kind of really where this thing picked up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems like it’s received widespread mainstream media attention in a way that many other stories involving black men killed in – questionable circumstances have not. Is it something about the media changing, or is it something about the political moment? Or is it something about the peculiarities of Florida law?
TRYMAINE LEE: It’s a very complicated dynamic situation. But even when you look back to say, 2006 and 2007, with the Sean Bell killing in New York, when the cops fired dozens and dozens of shots into this vehicle, killing him just hours before he was to be wed, Twitter hadn’t emerged the way it has now, Facebook hadn’t emerged the way it is now.
Now everyone can immediately get this information out. And you couple that with the political tone of the time, with this Florida law, the Stand Your Ground Law, which some have called the, the “Make My Day Laws” or the “Dirty Harry Laws” that allows anyone to use deadly force against anyone they feel is threatening them. And so, it’s kind of the perfect storm here.
With The Huffington Post, of course, we’re online, and so early on I saw that stories were being shared by five, six, seven, eight thousand people on Facebook, thousands of comments. It was clear that part of the driving force behind this story was the ability for people to share it quickly and easily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, I was reading The Atlantic’s summary of this story and its transit into the headlines, and three of the earliest, most important people to put it there are you, The New York Times’ Charles Blow and Ta-Nehisi Coates. We’re talking about three black journalists making sure that this story becomes part of the national conversation. I just think that makes a very strong argument for diversity in the newsroom.
TRYMAINE LEE: It’s kind of the other side of the coin when we see the fair-skinned, blonde-haired woman go missing and the entire media hops on it. Most of the newsrooms are full of, you know, mostly white people, and I think that it’s natural; you see your niece, you see your daughter, your mother, your wife. In this case, I, I think none of us could deny as black men – Ta-Nehisi and Charles Blow and myself, that you can’t see a little bit of yourself in a Trayvon Martin.
But what is really interesting, now you’ve seen people from all across the economic and racial spectrum who are hoppin’ on this case because so much of it, though the case seems to have begun with an act of racial profiling, it ended with something so much more. Folks are saying it’s a morals and ethics issue. And I think that’s where we are now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trymaine, thank you very much.
TRYMAINE LEE: Thank you so much for having me. I definitely appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trymaine Lee writes for The Huffington Post.