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Courtroom Strategy: How CNN Baited a Zimmerman Juror and Redeemed a Trayvon Witness

Posted: 07/17/2013 4:45 pm

If CNN is suffering in the cable ratings race, they may have found a new success formula in their wrap-up of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin trial.

Take, for example, this week's artful packaging of interviews: Anderson Cooper's exclusive Q&A with a silhouetted Juror B37, deftly followed by Piers Morgan's sit-down with a well-lit star prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel. It was a playmaker's clinic, neatly orchestrated to foster and foment reactions to the non-guilty verdict. And, oh yeah, to boost the embattled news icon's ratings. Here's how they did it, according plays of the The Standard Table of Influence:

Cooper: What did you make of [Rachel Jeantel's] testimony?

His play was a Bait because he knew that Morgan would be following. Cooper was fishing for new revelations all to engage viewers, irrespective of how or whether they might benefit his guest.

Juror B37: "I didn't think it was very credible. But, I felt very sorry for her. She didn't ask to be in this place. She wanted to go. She wanted to leave. She didn't want to be any part of this jury. I think she felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and because of her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her."

B37 might say her play was the Fiat, the strategy that puts facts ahead of spin. She was well-prepared with her story, almost flawless in her answers, but that she was first to talk among her five peers suggests that her strategy was instead a self-serving Peacock.

Minutes later, Piers Morgan picked up on the palpable condescension of B37 who, though shown only in studio shadows, presented as mature, fit, white and rich, the social mirror opposite of Jeantel, young, over-weight, black and poor.

Morgan: "[So]...You're uneducated. You have no communication skills. What do you feel about what that juror said about you?"

Morgan's play was a Bait as well. Though delivered as gentle and empathetic, his strategy was to dare Jeantel to bite on the question, no different than his colleague. But Jeantel didn't take the bait, not immediately. She was more circumspect, saying only that the comments made her angry.

Jeantel's first play was a Pause, perhaps to buy time, perhaps to pick a better moment. Her next plays amounted to Call Outs on her detractors. It was the signature sequence of a savvy playmaker.

Where B37 seemed eager to project her prowess -- and maybe probe her celebrity potential -- Jeantel ensured that B37 would remain anonymous. She disabused Morgan of the hope that a post-racial society has arrived. She schooled a squirming studio audience on the vernacular of the morphing n-word, that crackah is perhaps how Trayvon Martin perceived George Zimmerman more than how he talks and thinks, and that whoop-ass is different from ass-whoopin. She was, to the chagrin of B37 and Zimmerman supporters, hungry to be interviewed and ready to show her intelligence.

CNN got what they wanted all by way of the Bait, a strategy that schools of journalism eschew. They entrapped a juror in her conceit and vanity, redeemed a street-smart witness, and suggested to viewers that, maybe, the verdict was biased. And by that happy inference, CNN is left to try the case again, this time through the court of public opinion and no doubt by way of cable news.

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