In the past few days Wagist has been accused of irresponsible journalism, sensationalism, bigotry and racism… these charges have begun seeping outside the boundaries of this publication and into my private life. The source of the public outrage is a pair of articles written by my colleague, the man who asked me to fill the role of editor-in-chief, Dan Linehan.
While I believe that Dan has done some stellar investigating surrounding the Martin / Zimmerman shooting, I believe that the articles he’s written on the subject do not live up to the journalistic guidelines required for such an important issue. In other words: he’s dug up good evidence, but I believe he’s presented it improperly.
Dan’s articles were published without my consent, review, approval or endorsement, but as I am listed as editor-in-chief of Wagist, people could freely assume that I did support this article in its entirety. The purpose of this post is to dispel that notion, and to explain why.
Now Dan, Wagist and I, have been criticized for launching a character assassination on Trayvon Martin, and coming to the defense of alleged villain of the story, George Zimmerman. But I must preface my criticism by saying that I am certain that Dan was not acting out of malice or any particular political agenda, as has been suggested by his critics. However, I also believe that Dan, in his haste to share his discoveries, did not exhibit the journalistic standards warranted by a story as weighty as this one.
Dan posted a follow-up article today which was intended to put some of his critics at ease, but I fear it has only served to throw more fuel on the fire. And as my name is tied to Wagist masthead, I now feel obligated to respond.
Some Itemized Problems I have with the Articles:
#1) The headline “Was Trayvon Martin a Drug Dealer?” (Wagist, March 25, 2012) itself plays to the worst kind of sensationalism- an accusation in the form of a question. And while Dan found circumstantial evidence that could be interpreted as a record of an online acquaintance requesting that Martin sell some marijuana, this evidence is far from damning.
What’s more, the accusation is irrelevant. Knowing if Martin was involved with selling marijuana tells us nothing about Martin’s propensity to violence—the only aspect of his character that is relevant to the circumstances surrounding his death.
#2) The error of invoking Trayvon Martin’s appearance: the examination of his tattoos, gold teeth, etc, are also irrelevant to events surrounding his death.
#3) This error of implied guilt by association: The picture of Martin’s friend displaying what Dan identifies as a “gang sign,” has no business in any discussion of Martin’s character. Even if guilt-by-association were a legitimate tactic, it is not for us to say if this picture was intended literally or ironically. It has been advanced by some that the hand symbol in the picture isn’t a “gang sign” at all.
#4) The sin of offering an imagined narrative as something other than a hypothetical: Dan finished his first article by selecting from the evidence of the case those things which fit his scenario as Zimmerman as the victim, while omitting other evidence and testimony, including that which served to impeach his sources.
Dan states: “This is a textbook self-defense case, and I’d urge anyone reading to look at the full set of facts before drawing conclusions.” The authority and finality of that statement falls well outside the boundaries of responsible journalism.
We are in no position to presume to know with absolute certainty what events unfurled in the moments leading up to the shooting.
#5) The irresponsible invocation of Martin’s image to support the conjecture that Martin had a threatening demeanor: In Dan’s follow-up article “Misconceptions in the Trayvon Martin Case” (Wagist, March 28, 2012), Dan showed a photo of Martin with the text “Take a look at this picture of Trayvon and decide for yourself whether you would instigate a physical confrontation with him.”
Having spoken to Dan, I assure you that his intentions were only to call attention to Martin’s impressive height. However, I (and I’m sure many others) see only a thin, gangly, baby-faced kid in this photo… leaving us wide open to an accusation that Martin’s dark skin was an implied factor in our rating of how intimidating his appearance was. Such an implication is abhorrent to me, and I believe, should never have been published.
#6) In his follow-up article, Dan repeats the error alternately writing with an evenhanded voice, and switching to language that reports Zimmerman’s version of events as hard fact (e.g. “One minute he was on the phone with police, the next he was knocked down with one punch, and getting beaten incessantly,” “It was Trayvon’s voice screaming for help on the 9/11 [sic] call”, “Martin had him pinned to the ground and continued to beat him incessantly while Zimmerman was screaming for help.”) No matter how solid a case we build, it is simply poor journalism to report a conjecture as an absolute truth.
This may not be an exhaustive list of the problems in the preceding Wagist articles- you can certainly read our swollen comment section to find all the details with which our readers took issue.
It should be mentioned that at this time Wagist is not retracting evidence that Dan has gathered, but merely the narrative that was constructed to surround it.
A tragedy, particularly one that is racially charged, and has captured the attention of the nation, should have been handled with a degree of neutrality that was not displayed here.
Addendum: I want it noted that I believe that Dan’s articles did bring light to several aspects of Martin’s character that are valid, and do have a place in the public discourse. Dan did a fine job challenging the widely-held public view that Martin was a doe-eyed innocent and that Zimmerman was a racist with an itchy trigger finger. That narrative, which was adopted by most media organizations equally harmful to the quest for the truth.