The News vs. The Newsroom: Yes, NBC Did Alter George Zimmerman's 911 Call

Comparing the HBO series' depictions of Tyler Clementi's suicide, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and Rush Limbaugh's comments about contraception to what really happened
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How does The Newsroom's version of news events from 18 months ago fit in with the way those events really unfolded in the media? Not always perfectly—but not always incorrectly, either. Here's how the fifth episode of Aaron Sorkin's HBO series' second season compares to the real-life news coverage of the time period it portrays.

The Newsroom: On March 16, an audio tape of George Zimmerman's call to the Sanford Police just before he shot Trayvon Martin is released to the media. Mackenzie asks Jim to cut the four minutes and seven seconds of audio down to a 20- to 25-second clip to put on the air.

Just after the hastily edited segment airs, Neal points out that Maggie's editing has left out a crucial question that the police officer asked Zimmerman—about Martin's race. Maggie delivers the news to a very dismayed Charlie and Mackenzie, then they air the 911 call in its entirety at the end of the show.

The news: In 2012, NBC made the same move ACN did. On Today, an edited segment about the Trayvon Martin case, producers aired a clip of the phone call that deleted the dispatcher's question, "Was he black, white, or Hispanic?"

Other news sources called out NBC's "error" as a dangerous, perhaps-intentional inaccuracy: Creating the illusion that Zimmerman brought up Martin's race unprompted—and directly after stating that he seemed to be "up to no good"—could help confirm suspicions that the shooting was racially motivated. 

"What we're seeing today in the mainstream media has passed well beyond simple incompetence and bias," " said Bill Whittle, host of Trifecta on the conservative/libertarian web TV network PJTV. "What we're seeing now, in my opinion, is actual, criminal negligence on the part of major news outlets. And nowhere is this clearer than in the example of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case.

"I've been an editor for eight years and I know that you don't make a pull-out like that to save four seconds and distort the meaning by accident."

NBC apologized; Zimmerman later sued.


The Newsroom: In mid-March of 2012, Rush Limbaugh calls Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" on his radio show after Fluke speaks at a hearing on whether insurance should include a birth-control mandate. Hallie adds her voice to the feminist uproar by writing a column about it. After reading it, Maggie remarks, "Tell you what column I'd write. 'What's wrong with sluts?'"

A slut, she goes on to explain, is just "a woman who has a lot of casual sex with different guys. Why isn't that good as long as everybody's safe?" Maggie says to Jim. "The country's divided into people who like sex and people who are utterly creeped out by it," Maggie says to Jim. "I'm one of the sex people. And I'm sure we're in the majority, and I'm tired of having to make a public bow to the minority by pretending I'm not really into sex."

The news: "What's wrong with sluts?" did, in fact, come up in the ensuing conversation. At Slate, Emily Bazelon expanded on what Sandra Fluke's words—and the response to Limbaugh's—meant to women everywhere. Paraphrasing an article by DePaul University law professor Deborah Tuerkheimer, Bazelon wrote that campaigns to reclaim and defend the word "slut" was a new high-water mark in feminists' insistence on the general okayness of women having casual sex.

Tuerkheimer argues that the "rise of sex-positivity," as she calls it, is "the most significant feminist initiative in decades." What's distinctive about this reclamation is that women are insisting both on sex without rape, and on sexuality without judgment. ...

By making the case that women need insurance coverage that includes birth control—to protect their health in some cases, and in others, yes, simply to have sex[Fluke] is reminding us that of course this is part of who we are. We don't have to modestly avert our eyes from that reality or keep quiet about it, either.


The Newsroom: Rutgers student Dharun Ravi gets convicted of intimidation bias after harassing his gay freshman roommate, Tyler Clementi. In September 2010, Ravi had invited Twitter users to watch via webcam as Clementi had an encounter with another man. Clementi later committed suicide, and on March 16, 2012, Ravi was convicted of 15 crimes including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. The president of Rutgers' Gay-Straight Alliance is invited to appear on News Night, and Mackenzie discourages him from coming out on the air.

The news: Networks did bring young people onto news programs to talk about bullying and specifically the bullying of gay teensbut much of that coverage was in 2010, after Clementi committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge. Several news outlets covered a candlelight vigil for nine gay students across the country who had taken their own lives after feeling alienated by their peers, and St. Michael's College's Gay-Straight Alliance president talked to New England Cable News:

Dr. Phil hosted a panel of openly gay teenagers to talk about measures that could be taken to provide gay teenagers with allies and a safe place to talk and be themselves.

Dr. Phil asked Mark Indelicato, who played gay teenager Justin Suarez on Ugly Betty, how he responded to young fans who had written to him distressed about their sexuality. "I didn't know exactly how I could support them without just saying, 'This does get better. And you have to talk to someone. Whether it's a friend, or a teacher, or the Gay-Straight Alliance Club in your school if that's offered,'" Indelicato replied. "That's one of the main issues: These teens don't have anyone to talk to. They're left there contemplating by themselves, which can lead to much more serious matterslike suicide."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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