George Zimmerman has sued NBCUniversal and some of its television reporters, claiming that the conglomerate’s news division distorted facts in order to make his killing of Trayvon Martin in February appear to be racially motivated.
Zimmerman shot Martin on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., after calling 911 to complain of what he saw as suspicious behavior from the unarmed teenager. The lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that NBC manipulated Zimmerman’s 911 call to make it appear that he suspected Martin was up to no good because “he’s a black male.”
The manipulated 911 call is not in dispute, and NBC already has fired reporters Lilia Luciano and Jeff Burnside over the matter. Thursday’s lawsuit names not only NBCUniversal but Luciano, Burnside and NBC News correspondent Ron Allen as defendants.
According to the lawsuit, “the first manipulated audio” appeared when Burnside played the tape of Zimmerman telling the 911 operator that “there is a real suspicious guy. Ah, this guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something. He looks black.”
In fact, though, Zimmerman said, “he looks black” only after the operator asked him to describe Martin, including his race.
The next day, according to the lawsuit, Luciano broadcast a different doctored version of the 911 call, wherein Zimmerman says: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.”
Allen, while reporting for Today on March 27, according to the lawsuit, delivered a report that brought the “up to no good” and “he looks black” statements even closer together in order to “reinforce the false and defamatory implication” that Zimmerman was racially motivated the night he killed Martin.
“The maliciously edited audio,” according to the lawsuit, “included multiple deletions, each intentionally removing almost one minute of intervening dialogue between Zimmerman and the dispatcher, so as to juxtapose unrelated content to make it appear that Zimmerman was a racist, and that he was racially profiling Trayvon Martin; despite knowing the truth, the defendants reiterated these false racial themes in the broadcasts.”
The lawsuit also blasts as a “feeble attempt at damage control” a statement issued by NBC News president Steve Capus whereby he admitted the network made a “mistake” that was “not deliberate."
The complaint also says NBC "falsely claimed" that Zimmerman used the racial epithet "coons" while talking to the 911 dispatcher, though he actually said "punks." It also says NBC highlighted Martin's minority status while not mentioning that Zimmerman is Hispanic and that when the network was running stories on the killing, it chose "misleading photos from years ago to identify Martin's and Zimmerman's appearances."
The lawsuit states, “Zimmerman has suffered greatly, with death threats, a bounty placed on his head, threats of capture and a constant, genuine fear for his life resulting in his need to, among other things, live in hiding and wear a bulletproof vest."
Also claimed in the suit is that the actions of NBC and the three reporters "substantially contributed to a media frenzy including rallies provoked by NBC personnel such as the Rev. Al Sharpton (an employee of NBC, who reported on his own rallies on behalf of NBC)."
In an email to The Hollywood Reporter late Thursday, NBCUniversal said: "We strongly disagree with the accusations made in the complaint. There was no intent to portray Zimmerman unfairly. We intend to vigorously defend our position in court."