Cable News Coverage Of Zimmerman Trial Widely Criticized

The George Zimmerman trial has received a lot of attention and time on cable news. In many ways it resembles the sprawling coverage of earlier sensational trials. But the Zimmerman trial also has important social and cultural questions swirling around it.

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The coverage of the Zimmerman trial has led to a lot of harsh criticism of the media, and much of that has been directed at the cable TV networks. NPR's David Folkenflik reports that reaction to all the coverage says something about what people expect from journalists these days.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The critics are legion, and among them are some journalists themselves. The Washington Free Beacon put together a collage of Chuck Todd, host of MSNBC's "Daily Rundown," seemingly despairing at the amount of time he had to devote to the case on his political show as he did here.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY RUNDOWN")

CHUCK TODD: Yes, those are more live pictures of that courtroom in Sanford, Florida. Meanwhile, let's turn to some other news that we know a lot of folks are trying to follow. I know I am.

FOLKENFLIK: New York University professor Jay Rosen wrote that he was giving up on CNN, saying it was abdicating its news responsibilities in how it covered the story. Others have chimed in as well, arguing the tumult in Egypt has taken a backseat and that so have the prosecutions of Private Bradley Manning for handing over military secrets to WikiLeaks, and former mob boss Whitey Bulger. But then again, federal courts have no cameras. Sid Bedingfield worked at CNN for 20 years, rising to direct all of the network's U.S. news operations, and he in large part agrees with the criticisms.

SID BEDINGFIELD: Their real motive there is ratings. The wall-to-wall live coverage inevitably transforms the trial into a piece of entertainment TV in which viewers are asked to engage emotionally with the characters involved and to choose sides.

FOLKENFLIK: Bedingfield is now a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina who studies American journalism's treatment of race. He says the racial overtones make this trial fundamentally different.

BEDINGFIELD: You have play by play and color commentators who are providing this kind ongoing debate about who's up, who's down, who got the better of whom. And in a sensitive case, I think that's wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Corey Dade has been covering the case as a contributing editor for the online magazine The Root. He argues that the cable networks are following the lead of strong public interest in the case that built from social media outlets and protests, pressuring local officials and even reaching the White House.

COREY DADE: The resounding thing about this is that, in both cases, with both actors in this drama, they represent the type of behavior that any American person would be involved in.

FOLKENFLIK: Dade says the coverage has allowed viewers to explore questions of possible racial mistrust and also of the rights and responsibilities of gun owners. He likes the near-gavel-to-gavel feel on TV.

DADE: It's really kind of a check on sort of the unbridled opinions that you see on social media, and it really does remind us that, you know, a real courtroom, a real criminal case, is not "CSI." It's not "Law & Order." There are rules. There are legal precedents. There are laws. And so it actually has a disciplining effect on the viewer.

FOLKENFLIK: The criticisms remind Reuters media critic Jack Shafer of an old girlfriend who not only picked what she ordered at a restaurant, but picked his meals for him too.

JACK SHAFER: Many of the people, I think, who are watching the Zimmerman trial are not watching it instead of watching the demonstrations from Cairo. They're watching it instead of watching entertainment television.

FOLKENFLIK: There's nothing new under the sun, Shafer says, from the Lindbergh baby trial nearly 80 years ago to the fate of Jodi Arias. You can love it, you can hate it, but sensational courtroom cases, he says, compel coverage. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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