(Reuters) – A Florida man sued NBC on Thursday, saying the network intentionally edited and repeatedly aired a non-emergency phone call he made to police before shooting and killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin “to create the myth” that he was a racist.
Attorneys for George Zimmerman, who maintains he shot Martin in self-defense in February during a struggle, said the lawsuit seeking an undisclosed amount in damages was filed in the same central Florida court where he will stand trial in June for murder.
“NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, so it set about to create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain,” the defamation lawsuit says.
“NBC created this false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman’s owns words, splicing together disparate parts of the (police) recording to create the illusion of statements that Zimmerman never actually made.”
But NBC denied any wrongdoing in a statement issued late on Thursday.
“We strongly disagree with accusations made in the complaint. There was no intent to portray Mr. Zimmerman unfairly. We intend to vigorously defend our position in court,” the statement said.
The edit in question, which aired on the network’s flagship “Today” morning show in April, made it appear that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, told police that Martin was black without being asked.
In fact, the full tape reveals that Zimmerman only did so when responding to a question posed by a dispatcher.
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NBC News president Steve Capus told Reuters in April that the edit was a “mistake, not deliberate” misrepresentation.
Capus said at the time that a producer made the editing error, and that the network’s editorial controls – including senior broadcast producer oversight, script editors and often legal and standards department reviews of sensitive material to be broadcast – simply missed the selective editing of the phone call.
The network apologized to its viewers in a statement, and two NBC news staffers named as defendants in the lawsuit were fired.
But the complaint says the network never apologized to Zimmerman “for deliberately portraying him as a hostile racist who targeted Martin due to his race.”
The misleading audio edit of the call led to significant pressure on the network from critics who claimed it had exacerbated already inflamed racial tension surrounding the case.
“You cannot look at the way that tape was crafted and aired, and not believe that there was intent there,” Zimmerman’s lawyer Mark O’Mara said on Thursday.
“I think what they were trying to do was beat everyone to the punch in calling him (Zimmerman) a racist,” O’Mara said.
“In today’s media environment you have to act immediately, and you have to act sensationally if you’re going to get attention,” he added.
NBC News is part of NBC Universal Media, a unit of Comcast Corp.