The textbook as unreliable narrator
NBC told this blog today that it would investigate its handling of a piece on the “Today” show that ham-handedly abridged the conversation between George Zimmerman and a dispatcher in the moments before the death of Trayvon Martin. A statement from NBC:
“We have launched an internal investigation into the editorial process surrounding this particular story.”
Great news right there. As exposed by Fox News and media watchdog site NewsBusters, the “Today” segment took this approach to a key part of the dispatcher call:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
Here’s how the actual conversation went down:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
The difference between what “Today” put on its air and the actual tape? Complete: In the “Today” version, Zimmerman volunteered that this person “looks black,” a sequence of events that would more readily paint Zimmerman as a racial profiler. In reality’s version, Zimmerman simply answered a question about the race of the person whom he was reporting to the police. Nothing prejudicial at all in responding to such an inquiry.
These two things came my way at about the same time. I don’t want to overstate things based on this one example but it does exemplify one argument I keep having with people. The “vetted” world comes with its own inaccuracies and biases yet we don’t seem to approach this content in that way. Textbooks, NBC’s media library, statements from members of our government, the content of library databases we provide students etc. are all things that ought to be looked at with the same critical eye we encourage for other less “trustworthy” sources of information.1
I wonder to what extent we’d have a more interesting and involved classroom if we introduced the idea of the textbook as an unreliable narrator. It’d be interesting to see what students would consider worth proving vs what they’d just accept. There’s a lot you could play with there. It’d certainly be a fun book to write.
1 Suspect everyone and follow the money might be a good rule of thumb.