Sunday, April 1, 2012

Touré and Piers in the "boxing ring"

I feel saddened by the turn taken by the discourse on the story of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the armed man in his late twenties who is described as a “neighborhood watch captain.” Initially, the general consensus was that Trayvon’s parents deserved the public’s sympathy and justice (i.e. an investigation into their son’s killing and a subsequent trial). Now, all of that has been somewhat muddied by the polarized war in the media.

A number of journalists have attempted to cover the story objectively and exhaustively as it develops, but others have taken the polarizing route instead. I can’t say I’m surprised. When something touches this close home (as it does for many Americans), it is pointless to ask people to leave their emotions out of it. At the heart of many people’s responses to the story are their fears that they or their loved ones could die in a similar manner to Trayvon (which is understandably terrifying) and then subsequently have the case swept under the carpet because of the killer’s claims that he or she was acting under the “Stand your ground law.” How can you blame people for feeling angry and passionate under the circumstances?

The emotions surrounding the story remind me a bit of the emotions surrounding the 9/11 story when the tragic events happened in 2001. As a foreigner living in the United States, I was very much aware of the moment when all claims to objectivity flew out the window at the major media houses. People were angry, frightened and vulnerable, including the very human journalists and politicians. The biased coverage of the story and the subsequent decision to go to war in Iraq (which horrified and disappointed me) could be understood within this context.

I am among many of those anxiously waiting to see how the Trayvon Martin story plays out. I sincerely hope that the case makes it to a court of law, because the court of public opinion is no place for this issue to be tried. Trayvon Martin and his family deserve that much. And, truth be told, so does George Zimmerman: Otherwise, given the passions surrounding this story, I cannot see any set of circumstances under which he and his family will be able to live without fear of reprisals. In my opinion, the real story here is the progress of the investigation: not the details that the media uncovers about Trayvon’s and George’s personal lives, and certainly not the personal crosses borne by the journalists covering the story.

On the 30th of March, I watched a bizarre exchange on TV between Piers Morgan and Touré that brought all these thoughts to mind. Touré had criticized Piers Morgan’s interview of Robert Zimmerman Jr., the older brother of George Zimmerman, as being too soft. After an unflattering exchange between the two on Twitter, Piers finally responded by asking Touré to come on his show and voice his criticism face-to-face. The prospect of a verbal duel between the two made for good television ratings. But I do think it was a stupid idea on Piers’ part to challenge Touré on that forum. He should simply have left Touré’s criticism where it stood, as the expression of an opinion on Twitter. The minute he decided to invite Touré to his show, their difference in opinion stopped being about responsible journalism and started to be about their egos.

The televised exchange between Touré and Piers was painful to watch. Touré essentially accused Piers of doing a shoddy job as a journalist. In his opinion, Piers had hosted a guest on his show whose credibility was in question, and whose version of events was not supported by the external evidence. He pointed out to Piers that he should have questioned Robert Zimmerman Jr. more aggressively when it was clear that he was not being truthful. Piers protested that he had challenged Robert on some of his claims and emphasized that, as a journalist, it was incumbent upon him to be objective and to allow both sides of the story to be presented to his audience. His providing of that platform to his guests did not mean that he believed every single word his guests spoke.

I could see where the two men were coming from. On the one hand, it was obvious that there had been something wrong with Robert Zimmerman Jr.’s version of events. I had watched the interview and been put off by him. He had come across to me as arrogant and as a liar. He definitely had not done his brother any favors by doing that interview. In fact, on the day after the interview, George Zimmerman’s lawyer had been careful to distance George from it, pointing out that George and Robert Jr. had not spoken in more than a year.

Clearly, Touré’s instincts had been on point. I suspect that my personal opinion on the Trayvon Martin case is pretty close to Touré’s, but I absolutely disliked what I perceived as his attack of Piers Morgan. First of all, Touré seemed to be missing the main point about Piers Morgan Tonight: As I see it, the show is directed at the same audience as Larry King Live. It’s not meant to be an investigative journalism show. It’s a show where people from all walks of life come in, sit and chat. Piers asks questions that allow them to reveal their personalities and, to some extent, he follows their lead. I watch his show when he has political guests for precisely this reason: I want to see the human being behind the public image. Piers’ show would not work if he adopted a “take no hostages” attitude with his guests. In fact, the one time I remember him being hostile to one of his guests, Christine O’Donnell, I was not impressed. So Touré’s criticism of Piers’ role in the interview, while based on fact, was somewhat misplaced.

Another big problem I had with Touré was the tone he adopted in his “duel” with Piers. He sounded arrogant and condescending. Quite frankly, he also sounded childish. He implied that, because Piers was a Briton, he had absolutely no insight into race relations in America, and should have left journalism on the subject to those who were directly involved. He also implied that it was irresponsible to interview Robert Zimmerman Jr. in the first place, presumably because he was presenting a narrative that didn’t agree with what the media had established to be the true narrative. I believe he actually indicated that Robert Jr. should have been treated as a hostile witness.

To me, Touré seemed to have lost sight of what journalism was actually about. He appeared to be of the opinion that the media was a court of sorts and that he and others were acting as the prosecutors of George Zimmerman. I did not like that at all. Inasmuch as I think George Zimmerman’s story is implausible and that he should be charged and taken to court, I do not want the media to be his prosecutor or his defender, nor do I want the media to be his judge. I just want media personalities to shine a light on the facts of the story and to keep me updated on the direction that the investigation is taking.

Like many Americans who watched Piers Morgan Tonight on the night when he interviewed Robert Zimmerman Jr., I was actually interested in hearing Robert’s perspective on his brother George. I did not believe what he had to say, and he proved not to be a sympathetic guest. Furthermore, I think it was stupid of him to do that interview, but at least we got to hear the words from his own mouth. One of the problems with Touré’s apparent perspective on irresponsible journalism is that it presumes that Piers Morgan’s audience does not have the capacity to read between the lines and make judgments of character for themselves. The idea that it is the journalist’s job to frame every interviewee’s words with an interpretation and to spoon-feed this to the audience is problematic. Where I come from, that is not called journalism; it is called manipulation. Granted, most journalism entails a certain amount of manipulation, and that is fine. But it is only fine in small doses. When I watch these interviews, I want to hear the interviewees’ stories for myself. I don’t want to be hit over the head with some opinionated interviewer’s take on things.

In his defense, Touré was backed into a corner. He was obviously not at ease, having to spar with Piers on the latter’s own TV show before he was ready. Apparently, Piers had goaded him into accepting the invitation. So I am not surprised that he was very much on the defensive, and I suspect that he was simply responding instinctively. He was not speaking as a man who had carefully weighed his words and thought about their implications. The snarky, arrogant, and, frankly, bigoted picture we got of Touré was not flattering, but it wasn’t the picture I was used to seeing of him either. Touré’s rants (on the Dylan Ratigan Show) and his articles are usually intelligent and well-thought out. A good case in point is this one about Obama. On that score, I am giving him some leeway. But I hope that, in the future, he avoids putting himself into situations where he collapses his journalistic responsibilities into his personal opinion. I also hope that Piers has learned that televised confrontations are a stupid idea and do nothing to raise the quality of his show. In the future, he should take online criticism magnanimously. On the televised forum, the fight between the two could never have been an exchange between equals.

Please note that I am not claiming that Piers is the epitome of excellent journalism. Many of us are aware of his alleged role in the British media scandal, and Piers Morgan Tonight is, after all, an entertainment show. But in this particular case, I think Touré’s televised words were more cringe-worthy than Piers’.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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