In February 2012, in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman killed unarmed black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, but claimed he had acted in self-defense. Supporters of Zimmerman, including many self-identifying racists and hate groups, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on legal defense. The money worked. Zimmerman was acquitted.
The lawyer who helped Zimmerman get out of this charge was Mark O’Mara, a $400-per-hour criminal defense attorney. According to the Huffington Post, O’Mara “volunteered to represent Zimmerman at no charge just weeks after he was charged with the murder.”
When asked about the killing of Martin, O’Mara said he was “absolutely convinced the shooting was justifiable self-defense and there were no racial motives at play.” Only a few months before, however, he claimed that, had Zimmerman been black, “he would never have been charged with a crime.”
In December 2013, an ethics complaint was filed against O’Mara, taking issue with the way he conducted the trial. The Florida Bar association investigated. The lawyer himself refused to comment on the grievance.
Only a few months before the filing of the ethics complaint, CNN hired Mark O’Mara as a legal analyst. CNN is now citing O’Mara as a legal authority in defense of police officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown.
In August 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown. Audio evidence proves that Wilson shot at the teen at least ten times. Wilson says he shot at Brown 12 times. Brown’s official autopsy indicates that he was hit three times in the head (including once in the eye and once in the forehead), two times in the chest, three times in his right arm, and one time in his hand.
Unlike Zimmerman, Wilson had the protection of a badge. He never saw a day in court. He was never even charged with a crime; a grand jury chose not to indict him. As had been the case with Zimmerman, numerous hate groups, including the KKK, rose a fortune to support him. The online fundraising campaign, rife with racist comments, rewarded Wilson with roughly $400,000.
From the beginning, many pointed out gaping holes and troubling conflicts of interest in the grand jury case. The background of the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, Robert McCulloch, in the words of CBS, led to “some questioning [the] probe’s credibility.” McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle, and cousin all worked for the St. Louis police department, of which Darren Wilson was an employee. Moreover, the prosecutor is the president of an organization that actively raised money for the Darren Wilson Defense Fund.
Associated Press reviewed thousands of pages of documents and found that much of the purported evidence presented to the grand jury was “inconsistent, fabricated or provably wrong.” Since this time, even many of the media networks that had been defending Darren Wilson are now reporting on the “shocking mistakes” committed in the case.
CNN has continued to cite Zimmerman’s former attorney as a legal authority. In a piece published 25 November 2014, “What’s next for Officer Darren Wilson?“, O’Mara is quoted numerous times as an authority on Darren Wilson’s case. In fact, in the approximately 830-word article, only two sources are used: O’Mara and another CNN legal analyst, Paul Callan. O’Mara is featured heavily. He claims that Wilson “acted in self-defense” and that he “probably acted within the confines of what he’s supposed to do.”
It is never disclosed that the legal analyst CNN is citing to defend Darren Wilson also defended George Zimmerman.
By writing entire articles such as these, based solely on the perspective of its own legal analysts, CNN maintains and reproduces a narrow tunnel vision. Its news becomes, in effect, written by, and filtered through, the very analysts it hires. The view of the attorney who defended George Zimmerman turns into CNN’s official view, which then influences how the millions of Americans who rely on CNN for news conceive of contemporary events.
O’Mara is not only a legal analyst shaping CNN’s stories; he is also offered a platform to write his own articles for CNN. O’Mara does lip service to addressing deeply entrenched structural racism in the US Justice System, yet insists that Americans of color are equally responsible for its perpetuation. He posits the problem is that “both sides refuse to move toward the middle.” Political scientist Michael Parenti refers to this prevalent yet problematic perspective as “suffocating centrist ideology making false claim to objectivity.” In this view, members of oppressed groups are as responsible for their oppression as are the institutions and oppressor groups responsible for creating and sustaining this oppression.
When Ferguson activist Deray Mckesson criticized CNN for precisely these reasons, New York-based lawyer Eric Sanders replied “Are we surprised by this analysis? This is the same mindset that ignores the racial imbalances in society. Sad.” In a feature in NBC, a friend of O’Mara emphasized how much he “believes in the process.” When someone argued that the many leaks about the Mike Brown case has compromised it, O’Mara claimed that “there is just no alternative” to the process in which he so fervently believes, harkening back to Thatcher’s infamous slogan. It is precisely this uncritical, dogmatic perspective that leads to journalism that preserves and reifies the status quo, stifling the free and independent press that a truly democratic society necessitates.
I contacted several CNN representatives, inquiring as to whether they saw a problem with relying on the legal analyst who defended George Zimmerman to present an impartial perspective on Darren Wilson. After many minutes of phone tag and many more on hold, no one would speak to me.
Civil rights protesters, in the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, have made no secret about their opinions of CNN and what they see as its egregious and unbalanced coverage. Were CNN to address some of these concerns, perhaps it could help improve its reputation.