Lawrence O'Donnell Discusses Trayvon Martin Case, The Empty Chair Interview and Shameful Coverage

Lawrence O'Donnell Trayvon Martin - H 2012
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Lawrence O'Donnell Trayvon Martin - H 2012

The MSNBC host talks with THR about how he has pursued covering the killing of the 17-year-old Florida boy, and the on-air decision that went viral.

Lawrence O'Donnell has spent the past two weeks digging deep into the killing of Florida teenageer Treyvon Martin, seeking facts and grilling guests on his MSNBC show about the night of the fateful shooting. And while he has helped to push the case forward with the nightly platform provided by his program, The Last Word, his most crucial and seen moment in his time covering the story was the interview he did with an empty chair.

The viral video moment came on his Monday night program, when he was scheduled to interview Craig Sonner, the lawyer for Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman. Sonner was at the satellite studio in Orlando, ready to do the interview, until he left three minutes before air time, leaving O'Donnell in a fix. He'd had to switch gears for late guests or technical problems before, but never because a guest up and left the studio.

"It was the thing I was there to do, and there wasn't anything else in the show that mattered to me as much. I was just very eager to do it, and so I just couldn't shift," O'Donnell told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. "It's a performance failure of sorts, in the sense that I'm just not that professional a broadcaster, and I don't actually aspire to be."

O'Donnell initially booked Sonner after seeing him make a "peculiar" appearance on The Today Show earlier on Monday. "I thought, well, if he's going to do television, then there are some things that we really want to know, that he knows. I also knew what he would do as a guest. I knew he would mostly not answer questions. And that happens in court rooms all the time. Lawyers know that certain witnesses are simply not going to be cooperative and are not going to answer the questions. And what matters at that point is what is your question? Because everything you want the jury to know should be in your question, or everything you want the jury to wonder about should be in your question.

Specifically, O'Donnell wanted to know about Sonner's relationship with Zimmerman -- how they met, who was paying him -- which would tell him more about Zimmerman's financial situation and likelihood to flee the jurisdiction. He also wanted to bring up two crucial topics that would shine vast light on the incident that took place between Martin and Zimmerman: why the victim was found face down, and what the entrance and exit wounds looked like. 

"I was geared to do that cross examination on that basis, and I actually don't think that much more would have been accomplished with him in the chair than [with] the empty chair, and I kind of realized that in the moment where the show began," he explained. "There was nothing in the prompter and I found myself explaining to the audience why the guest I had said was going to be here wasn't here. I didn't know what I was going to say beyond that explanatory couple of sentences introducing it, and I didn't know what I was going to feel. I was a little surprised that I felt as intensely as I did about what happened, about his walking away, which I believe was based on a very simple thing: he realized that this wasn't going to be a softball interview like the other interviews he's done."

How the media has handled Sonner is a major bone of contention for O'Donnell.

"Many of the interviews he's done, and the other interviews that have been done on this subject, have been absolutely, total wastes of time that are a shame and an embarrassment to this field," O'Donnell lamented, "and they've been done by people who are just trying to get through the segment, who haven't done their homework and have no idea how to talk to people in these kind of cases."

O'Donnell had been aware of the case, but felt he could not advance the story -- until he heard the infamous 9-1-1 call made by Zimmerman, in which the Floridian Neighborhood Watch captain allegedly made a racial slur about the African American Martin and was told by dispatchers not to follow him. O'Donnells alleged that it seems like there was a police cover up at the scene of the shooting, but insists he hasn't taken a position vis a vis whether Zimmerman is guilty of a crime, even if he heavily and at times harshly questioned Zimmerman's friend, Joe Oliver, on the show on Tuesday night.

"Here are the things I have not said: I have never said Zimmerman should be in jail. I have never said Zimmerman should be convicted. I have not said Zimmerman should be arrested. I have asked why he wasn't, and there is a very, very large gap between asking why someone wasn't and saying he should be," he asserted. "And I understand completely why people would have that impression. Certainly people on my show have said he should be arrested and convicted, and people have said that on all networks, so that's out there and has been said, and there are absolutely people out there who have judged the case in a jury-like way and have found guilt on television. And I don't fault that either. That is well within the realm of the First Amendment, it's certainly well within the realm of Trayvon Martin's family, I'm just saying I haven't done it."

Beyond the actual details of the incident that led to the shooting, the case has spurred larger questions about race relationships and how the media covers stories charged with the tension of black and white. There has been criticism that the racial aspect has been a major cause of the flurry of coverage -- some say that, had it been a black-on-black crime, or a white man killed by a black teen, the same attention would not be given to what is now a national story. It's a twisted tunnel with a path that can take the conversation far from the shooting at hand, but despite being the target of such criticism, O'Donnell doesn't think that there has been an inappropriate concentration either way.

"I think the balance is there. I think there is a lot of talk about the surrounding issues about race issues that surround this, and it is impossible to take race issues out of this. There is a race issue on the 9-1-1 tape. George Zimmerman raises a race question on the 9-1-1 tape, and even his advocate Joe Oliver says that he has heard the word 'coons' on the 9-1-1 tape," the host said. "So you can't take it out, it's impossible to take it out of the story. And what everyone who understands the history of law enforcement and race relations withing law enforcement knows that law enforcement lands very differently in the black community than it does outside the black community, and outcomes are very different within the black community than outside the black community."

Comparing the case to that of the Rodney King beating, O'Donnell says that the Martin shooting will probably not change race relations in America, but it will make police very aware that they cannot fudge investigations or make stories go away in this digital age.



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