A while back, television producer Melissa Cornick attended a Personal Democracy Forum featuring Arianna Huffington. Topic: Consensus.
Consensus as fact was widely acceptable during the lynch mob Apartheid-era in America. Huffington was debating Republicans Chuck DeFeo and Mark Ruffini about whether consensus equals journalism. In other words, if the majority agreed, then that was the norm and that norm should be accepted as fact.
But what about criminal proceedings where a quest for jury consensus leads to a debatable verdict, but not necessarily justice? While Cornick was videotaping the Huffington debate, she thought about stories she'd produced. She also observed that this audience of hundreds of people sat passively as Huffington was challenged on her views. Huffington was asserting that journalism could only be based upon research, divergent voices and a quest for facts -- not consensus -- and her opponents vehemently disagreed. “Journalism is consensus,” they argued.
“I was squirming in my chair,” Cornick said. It was all I could do to not drop the camera and yell, ‘What’s happening to U.S. democracy!?’ But Cornick said the audience appeared uninvolved. Even later in the hallways, not a word was spoken about this redefinition of journalism. “I saw not one raised eyebrow, heard not one comment, perhaps in their quest to find a comfort level in that massive crowd,” she said.
Years before, Cornick ventured alone into Tulia, Texas to produce the first national investigative report called, “Town on Trial.” A jury had convicted almost 1/4 of the adult black community on false evidence regarding drug dealing. She dug into concerns about the criminal allegations brought by a lone white police informant. The majority in the predominently white town seemed disinterested in reviewing true evidence. In fact, jury members said of evidence against the informant, “We didn’t need to see it. We trusted him. He wasn’t on trial.”
Despite sentences ranging up to 90 years, remarkably, the news exposure about the Tulia case helped lead to the black prisoners' release and even to fines paid by the county. "Town on Trial" won journalism awards.
Cornick said the George Zimmerman murder trial so reminded her of the Tulia case with a questionable lone informant-type, known to police. Racist. More than that, she said, "I perceive you have a jury mindset with a primary goal of to reaching its comfort-level through consensus.”
Huffington later revealed that Cornick’s “Town on Trial” story was her impetus to enter the field of journalism. The Huffington Post was created to build a groundswell for the public to participate in all forms of journalism. Cornick and Huffington connected briefly in Minnesota at a Free Press convention. But all is not resolved as the exploitation of a consensus model has appeared to dominate journalism and public perception about certain court trials.
Only one juror in the Zimmerman murder trial came forward after the trial to to assert that yes, she felt pressured to help acquit him. And the Department of Justice is compelled to step in to review this case.
If journalism and the jury failed by succumbing to consensus in the Zimmerman story, the public needs to be informed that Frankenstein-journalism and juries are here. Remember the poem, “First They Came,” by Pastor Martin Niemöller? ...For the communists... then the socialists... then the trade unionist. “And I didn’t speak out... Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Whether fiery mobs of truth and fact will destroy these Frankenstein consensus monsters is directly related to embracing not consensus whether it is within the self, in the company of two or 100. Instead courageously finding comfort in individualism for the public good -- for truth and facts -- as a personal responsibility to the Fifth Estate. Shine a light through many Marches on Washington. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew through sacrific that protecting democracy is worth the effort.