Joe Oliver has inserted himself into the debate surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin, making himself the public face of the defense of shooter George Zimmerman. Oliver, a former TV news anchor, has made dozens of media appearances in the past week to defend his “friend” Zimmerman’s character, dismiss allegations of racism, and note that the shooter has suffered himself from the public outcry.
Many have wondered why Oliver has stepped up, as his connection to Zimmerman is a bit murky, and as even he said on MSNBC last night, “my role in this just doesn’t make any sense.” The interview, with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and New York Times columnist Charles Blow, was tense and raised questions that Oliver didn’t seem comfortably answering.
But since he’s made himself a central figure in this ongoing controversy, it’s worth asking what we know about Joe Oliver:
1. Oliver first appeared this weekend and became a go-to guest for TV bookers literally overnight. Sitting out the controversy until Sunday, Oliver made the rounds of local TV news outlets that day and got a single mention on MSNBC, according to a search of media monitoring software. By Monday, he was everywhere, mentioned over 200 times and appearing on national cable news.
2. Oliver has been cagey about the apparent fact that the he and Zimmerman worked together. Zimmerman worked at a firm called Digital Risk, the company confirmed , and Oliver’s Linkedin page (which matches his known past employment) shows that he too worked at Digital Risk, during the same time period. A spokesperson for the company would not confirm the connection. But asked last night if they had “been in the same workplace,” Oliver cryptically replied, “I’m sure that information is out there, I know where he worked.” When O’Donnell said he had information that they worked together, Oliver replied, “If you’ve come across that information, then you have come across that information.”
3. Oliver initially said he was a good friend of Zimmerman’s, but told O’Donnell last night that they were merely “acquaintances.” He also said he had only briefly spoken to Zimmerman since Martin’s death, and only spoke to Zimmerman’s attorney this weekend, who apparently endorsed Oliver’s quest. He said he’s known Zimmerman for six years through the shooter’s mother-in-law, saying the two first met when Zimmerman started dating his now-wife.
4. Oliver has said he was unaware of Zimmerman’s past run-ins with the law, or that Zimmerman had gone through anger-management classes. Nor could he recognize Zimmerman’s voice from 911 calls, he’s said.
5. Oliver has offered bizarre defenses of Zimmerman, brushing off his alleged use of the racial slur “[expletive] coon” by saying that he actually said “goon” — “a term of endearment” — or alternately, that “coon” is not even a bad word.
Last night, Oliver said explicitly that his is not being paid, but it’s a bit unclear why he chose to insert himself. In another contentious interview with MSNBC this morning, Oliver said he inserted himself into the controversy, “Because I’m an African-American male and I understand the outrage.” “I understand enough about George to put myself in the crossfire,” he said. “I’m putting my own life on the line here.”
Indeed, while some critics have said O’Donnell and Blow “should be ashamed” of themselves for challenging Oliver, the man threw himself into a national political controversy knowing full well the dangers inherent with it — and no reason apparent at the moment.