Friday, July 5, 2013

Why Zimmerman and Not Egypt?

On one hand, a guy either defended himself from attack or murdered someone in a Florida town.  On the other, the military of a strategically significant country overthrew an elected leader to the delight of the people.

Why did the world shaking news of the Egypt coup rate a minor blip on the American cable news scene?

Part of it comes down to the nature of criminal trials.  What role do they play in culture?  The adversarial nature of a criminal trial combined with the subjectiveness of a jury judging the success or failure of a prosecution's case gives it a baser significance.  Trials, always more so than sports, represent social release.  The Roman emperors used to hold gladiatorial games to distract the people and channel their passions.  They "played" for stakes of life and death.  At times, the head of state got to weigh in on whether a combatant lived or died.

For better or worse, jury trials for centuries have fulfilled that role in America. 

Go back to the 1700s.  The capital murder trials of the Boston Massacre soldiers, defended brilliantly by the patriot John Adams.  No trial has ever matched that one for high drama.  An opponent of British rule convinces a blood bent Massachusetts jury to acquit the soldiers who killed several in the Boston Massacre.  The drama and the bigger issues made it a landmark of justice.  Like many equally famed trials later, the jury required a strong standard of proof to convict despite the social pressure to do so. 

The Zimmerman trial, however, does not reflect current issues as much as it resuscitates the ghosts of conflicts of ages past.  Hispanic on black racism?  Class judgment?  Just a guy trying to be the neighborhood tough guy going one step too far? Or was it a man watching out for his neighborhood?

Racism is as much of a modern issue as anti Catholicism.  It will always lurk in the background, but it no longer looms as large as it once did.  Times change, but memories remain.  Those running the news outlets today grew up in those times and lived in that context.  It is hard for them to understand that America has moved on.  The old paradigm is gone forever.  Nevertheless, it is good politics in some quarters to keep the fading issue alive.

News outlets believed that the Zimmerman trial formed a confluence of trial drama and race debate.  They spent a lot of time and money preparing to cover it as intensely as possible.  Egypt's military rudely launched a coup, disrupting the American media's preferred order.  It had no experts on scene, no reporters breathlessly standing in parking lots outside the coup, packed with meaningless or old information.

Americans proved to be more interested in the coup.  They packed social media, following reporters on the scene.  Online, they turned to BBC, Reuters, and other international outlets.  History was in the making.  A man that the people had elected had tried to transform himself into a tyrant.  They got the military's help in declaring independence from him.

Judging from the reaction of Obama and some other nations, not many understood the fact that an election confers a trust to follow the law, not a mandate to impose one's will.  The people and armed forces of Egypt acted on that very ideal.

And that should have been the big debate of the day.  The role of elections and the responsibility of the elected.  News outlets should have recognized the drama, understood the significance, and devoted analysis to the possibilities good and bad that could arise. 

But they didn't.  And that is why we do not trust our media.

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