In 1860 the New York World, a Christian newspaper, noted that "journalistic firebrands" both north and south vilified their opponents. Peace and progress toward emancipation were still possible, the World insisted, "if the press and orators of all parties will drop the vituperative style." Few listened. Journalists continued to pour whale oil on fires, and more than one of 10 young American males died in an uncivil war. Another century of oppression of blacks-now legally free but economically and politically chained-began.
Now we face media escalation of racial tensions following the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Exhibit A: NBC Today Show and New York Times treatment of the exchange between George Zimmerman and a 911 dispatcher just before the killing. Today had Zimmerman saying, "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black." The Times had a bit more: "'This guy seemed to be up to no good; like he was on drugs or something; in a gray hoodie.' Asked to describe him further, he said, 'He looks black.'"
Zimmerman was actually responding to the dispatcher's multiple-choice question: "this guy-is he black, white, or Hispanic?" Zimmerman replied, "He looks black." That identification does not nail Zimmerman as a racist. A grand jury is assessing Zimmerman's contention of self-defense as allowed under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. The press should not testify for the prosecution through selective editing.
The Today and Times malfeasance points to a larger issue. Yes, the unarmed 17-year-old's death on Feb. 26 should lead us to offer to Trayvon Martin's family and friends the words of Christ, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Yes, politicians who use that death to incite rage for electoral purposes should recall, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
But all of us should remember, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." We all tend to rush to judgment. All of us should take a deep breath and pray that this death will not lead to more.