By:
April 21, 2021

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt called it a “deep breath moment” for our country. ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir called it a “rare moment” when the country stops and comes together to focus on one thing.

How true.

The nation stopped and then held its collective breath when word came down Tuesday afternoon that a verdict had been reached in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd.

All three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) did something you almost never see when it comes to a court case: They broke into regularly scheduled programming to air the verdict.

“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, who was in Minneapolis, said, “It’s one of those things you dropped whatever you were doing. We just received word, we rushed over and here we are. … As we wait to hear the verdict, I can tell you this: The atmosphere in Minneapolis is very intense but I can also say it’s very hopeful.”

The verdict, reached much sooner than most expected, put cable news and major networks into filling-time mode. Most of that part of the coverage was good. Networks shined when they explained court procedure, the makeup of the jury and, as CNN did in great detail, a recap of the charges. That was especially helpful, even for viewers who have been paying attention to the trial but not necessarily to all the intricacies of the charges. In fact, throughout this coverage, CNN’s team of legal experts, especially Elliot Williams and Areva Martin, were superb in their knowledge of the case, analysis of the trial and in passing along context through their own experiences.

Another fine moment: ABC News’ legal analyst Sunny Hostin pointing out that the jury did not ask the judge or the court one question while deliberating. Not one question — about clarification of the law or anyone’s testimony or anything. That, along with the quickness of the verdict, according to Hostin’s experience, seemed to predict guilty verdicts for all three charges.

These are when the TV news outlets did their best work: explaining facts and analyzing what those facts might indicate.

This part of the coverage was not so good when it was ramping up the anxiousness that we all felt by speculating on worst-case reactions to not guilty verdicts. CNN did a bit of that. But CNN wasn’t alone in pointing out the country’s fears and then playing into those fears.

Then again, it’s hard to criticize any network that’s filling time on such short notice and, especially so, in such an emotional case.

Then came the verdict.

Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

NBC political analyst Eugene Robinson said what much of the country was feeling: “I just exhaled for the first time in more than an hour since we learned we were going to have a verdict. And one of my first thoughts was, you know, it shouldn’t have been this hard, right? … You know, we haven’t reached our destination on the racial reckoning that we need to have in this country. But I think this will be seen as a step forward, as opposed to what it potentially could have been seen as, which would have been a giant step back.”

On CNN, anchor Don Lemon said, “Justice has been served.”

His CNN colleague, Van Jones, said, “One down. Many more to go. Sometimes when we fight, we lose. But sometimes when we fight, we win. The people won.”

Jones then talked about Darnella Frazier, the brave teenager who held up her cell phone to videotape Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, causing his death.

“She did the right thing,” Jones said.

MSNBC’s Jason Johnson said, “What this says to me is that in order to get a nominal degree of justice in this country, that a Black man has to be murdered on air, viewed by the entire world, there has to be a year’s worth of protest.”

About the verdict, MSNBC’s Joy Reid said, “The reality is, the verdict today was not just against this police officer. It was against the kind of — that was mounted for him. It’s the same kind of defense that was mounted in the Rodney King case, the Black superman who, no matter how much violence you commit against his body, can raise up, even from the dead in the case of George Floyd, and pose a threat. The thought of a Black man as an inherent threat, a Black body as an inherent threat, that’s what Derek Chauvin’s defense tried to use in his defense.”

That defense wasn’t successful.

“The whole world just got to see that: Derek Chauvin led away in handcuffs,” MSNBC anchor Brian Williams said. “Depending on the disposition of sentencing, Derek Chauvin may not see the light of day again. … Nine minutes and 29 seconds. Prosecution told the jurors, believe your own eyes. In this case, they have.”

Another highlight of the coverage was the networks getting reactions from citizens in Minnesota who gathered outside the courthouse and where Floyd was murdered to listen to the verdict.

“I have to tell you, when the verdict was read… we started hearing horns honking,” King said from Minneapolis. “I think you felt jaws dropping. I think people thought maybe you would get one, but to get all three I think is a very stunning thing.”

One powerful moment came when a 31-year-old Black woman who has lived in the Twin Cities for a decade told NBC News’ Gabe Gutierrez, “Tomorrow, we go on to Daunte,” referring to Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man shot and killed by a police officer in suburban Minneapolis earlier this month.

Also on NBC, Holt talked to Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, who said, “The jurors recognized that George Floyd’s life mattered. Justice is a practice, not an end. Justice is a practice, not an end. Now the hard work begins. We have this moment and thank God. But this is just the beginning.”

What’s next? Sentencing will take place in eight weeks. Could an appeal overturn the verdict or lead to a new trial?

On Fox News, Judge Jeanine Pirro said, “Make no mistake, the facts are solid on this verdict. This verdict will be upheld on appeal.”

Also on Fox News, commentator Juan Williams called it a “very emotional moment,” adding, “It would have been so upsetting, it would have been a kick in the stomach, if in this most extreme situation … if the jury had somehow said let’s split the verdict.”

Fox News couldn’t get through the coverage, however, without stepping in some controversy. Not surprisingly, Tucker Carlson started his show with a chyron that read: “Can we trust the way this decision was made?”

Carlson also interviewed conservative Candace Owens, who, true to form, kicked up trouble seemingly for the sake of kicking up trouble. She actually said this: “What we’re really seeing is mob justice. And that’s really what happened with this entire trial. This was not a trial about George Floyd and Derek Chauvin.”

Owens then criticized the media, said the repeated showing of the video of Floyd’s death didn’t provide context and victim-blamed Floyd. She then said, “This was not a fair trial. No one can say this was a fair trial.”

Also on his show, Carlson said, “And it seems like nobody has more faith in the system after this, on either side.”

There’s more. After the verdict, commentator and now late-night host Greg Gutfeld shockingly said, “I’m glad (Chauvin) was found guilty on all charges, even if he might not be guilty of all charges. I am glad that he is guilty of all charges because I want a verdict that keeps this country from going up in flames.”

The comment was so outrageous (“even if he might not be guilty of all charges”?) that even his fellow Fox News colleagues audibly groaned before Pirro lashed out at Gutfeld.

Aside from those disgusting moments on Fox News, the major and cable news networks did an outstanding job on a day that we knew was coming, but still came sooner than expected. The networks adjusted on the fly. The coverage wasn’t perfect, but it was good.

Holt’s final words

Here’s how Lester Holt wrapped up his “NBC Nightly News” broadcast on Tuesday evening:

“Finally, what many tonight are considering justice served — the death of George Floyd had become, for many, a powerful symbol of racial injustice and police brutality. And now the verdict on Derek Chauvin is in, a jury of his peers finding him guilty. ‘Believe your eyes,’ said the prosecutor — and they did. Most likely, however, this is not the last word in a case that has forced us to look at those 9 minutes and 29 seconds as a reflection of where we are and what we don’t want to become as a nation. As we have seen just in recent days and weeks, it has not stopped deadly confrontations between the police and Black men. But tonight, the family of George Floyd has received justice in a Minneapolis courtroom. What happens on America’s streets might tell us if there is a deeper reckoning in the tragedy of George Floyd.”

Reid’s final words

MSNBC’s Joy Reid (Courtesy: MSNBC)

Here’s how MSNBC’s Joy Reid closed out her “The ReidOut” show Tuesday night:

“I’ve been covering Black Lives Matter cases since 2011. I have not seen this number of police officers testify against other police officers. I have not seen this, you know, level of conviction. I mean you’re talking about second-degree murder, third-degree murder, manslaughter. It’s extraordinary and now I guess we just have to see whether or not that that brings change. If that brings change that is lasting.”

The star witness

As I mentioned above, CNN’s Van Jones highlighted the importance of Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who videotaped the murder of George Floyd. Frazier also was the topic of Margaret Sullivan’s column in The Washington Post.

ABC’s Sunny Hostin called Frazier’s video, “The star witness for the prosecution. … The strongest piece of evidence I have ever seen in a case against a police officer.”

In her column, Sullivan wrote, “After so many previous instances in which police officers were acquitted of what looked to many people like murder, this time was different. And it was different, in some significant portion, because of a teenager’s sense of right and wrong. Call it a moral core.”

USA Today’s front page

Here’s the front page of today’s USA Today:

(Courtesy: USA Today)

Other coverage

Here’s some more notable coverage from the Chauvin verdict:

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Biden and Harris speak

President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks Tuesday at the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

CNN’s Dana Bash interviewed Vice President Kamala Harris before the jury in the Chauvin trial reached a verdict.

Harris told Bash, “Let’s say there is a guilty verdict on the highest charge. It will not take away the pain of the Floyd family. It will not take away the pain of the communities, all communities, regardless of their color or geographic location, that felt sadness and anger in what they witnessed in that video. This verdict is but a piece of it. And it will not heal the pain that existed for generations, that has existed for generations among people who have experienced and first-hand witnessed what now a broader public is seeing because of smartphones and the ubiquity of our ability to videotape in real time what is happening in front of our faces. And that is the reality of it.”

President Joe Biden later addressed the nation, saying the verdict was a “step forward.” He added, “It was a murder in the full light of day and it ripped the blinders off the whole world to see. Systemic racism is a stain on our nation’s soul.”

Cameras in the courtroom

For this item, I turn it over to my colleague Barbara Allen, Poynter’s director of college programming.

The rules about cameras and other recording devices in courtrooms vary from state to state, and Minnesota isn’t usually friendly to them.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently summed up the pros and cons: “Advocates of (allowing cameras in courtrooms) tend to argue that broadcasting court proceedings facilitates scrutiny of the legal system, and basic transparency. Courts generally allow members of the public to attend; in the digital age, what’s the justification for keeping physical limits on access? Opponents often argue that live TV coverage disadvantages defendants, and changes the dynamics of trials in undesirable ways — like encouraging lawyers to play to the court of public opinion, rather than the actual court — without fixing the many flaws of the justice system.”

In fact, as The Star Tribune editorial board recently wrote, “Until now, Minnesota has been known for its restrictive cameras-in-the-courtroom policies and only allowed audio and video recordings after a guilty plea or a guilty verdict.”

COVID-19 protocols, among other things, resulted in the Chauvin trial being streamed live, renewing conversation about cameras in the courtroom. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the journalism school at the University of Minnesota, said she was glad to see the trial in her hometown streamed live.

“I am hopeful that the very smooth experience with cameras — only a few glitches — will encourage those opponents who are members of the bench and bar to rethink their objections,” Kirtley wrote in an email to Poynter on Tuesday. “None of the dire consequences they were concerned about happened, and the trial itself seemed to me unaffected.”

The ban on electronic media in courtrooms is generally traced to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, which attracted hundreds of journalists and photographers and created a logistical nightmare for the court. That led to cameras and other electronic media being banned in most states.

As Poynter’s Al Tompkins wrote, “In 1981, when cameras got quieter and needed no extra lights, the high court ruled that just having a camera in a courtroom is not, in itself, unconstitutional. That decision opened the way for cameras-in-the-courts experiments across the country.”

Kirtley said she hopes that this trial proved such experiments work.

“The good news was that the public had a wide variety of platforms through which to view the trial, at their convenience,” she said. “It’s the essence of open justice, and will, I hope, reassure the public that justice was done.”

Now do something

For this item, I turn it over to my Poynter colleague Kristen Hare, editor of Locally.

If you feel overwhelmed by yesterday’s news (or last week’s, or last month’s, or last year’s,) one way to slow down is to get to know the journalism that’s happening on the ground from people who live there. Last week in my newsletter, Local Edition, I shared ways to support Black and Asian journalists around the country and how to support newsrooms in Minnesota. Reading and sharing that work is good. Supporting it is even better.

Now onto other media news …

Trouble brewing at major networks?

(John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx)

NBC News’ Dylan Byers has several interesting tidbits and lots of revealing numbers in his latest piece: “As network news leadership shuffles, doubts about future loom.”

The biggest takeaway? Networks might be headed for trouble if they can’t figure out how to stop hemorrhaging morning show viewers.

Byers wrote, “Morning shows, the profit centers for each network news division, are losing hundreds of thousands of viewers every year. Viewership among 25- to 54-year-olds, the demographic group advertisers covet, is roughly half what it was a decade ago, according to data from Nielsen, the media tracking company.”

Why is that so critical? Here’s what Byers found:

“The decline of a morning show spells trouble for an entire news division, because the morning shows account for the majority of revenue brought in by the broadcast news shows. An internal sales presentation prepared for NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde last year and seen by NBC News indicates the ‘TODAY’ show brought in $408 million in advertising revenue in 2019, compared to ‘Nightly News’ with $146 million and ‘Meet the Press; with $26 million, according to the document. ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ brings in $350 million to $375 million in advertising revenue per year and accounts for most of the network’s broadcast news revenue, sources at ABC said.”

So it raises this question: Can networks survive if they rely so heavily on their morning shows, while seeing those morning shows lose viewers? Byers writes that, so far, networks are keeping pace by charging advertisers more. But, Byers writes, “several television executives acknowledged the big advertisers will likely decide it’s not worth it to pay higher and higher costs to reach fewer and fewer viewers.”

Good stuff from Byers. Check it out.

An interesting conversation

On the latest episode of Spotify’s “Jemele Hill is Unbothered” podcast, Hill talks to Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. They discuss Garza’s new book (“The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart”), why organizing is the most effective way to create change, and common myths about BLM. Garza also discusses why she left BLM to start Black Futures Lab.

“I also didn’t want to be the Black Lives Matter lady for the rest of my life,” Garza told Hill. “To be honest, I have a lot of other talents. I have a lot of other skills. I have a lot more to offer and, you know, I’m not Black Lives Matter. That is something that I helped to create, but I am like the smallest piece of it. And I just kept feeling like the longer I’m here, the more it becomes about me and (BLM co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi) and less about what it is that we’re trying to do out in the world.”

Sports Emmy nominations

The Sports Emmys announced their 2021 nominations on Tuesday. Winners will be announced at a livestreamed event on June 8. ESPN properties, which include ABC, led all nominations with 54, followed by Fox Sports (31), NFL (28), NBC (25) and CBS (24).

Some of the more high-profile nominations:

Outstanding play-by-play announcer: Mike Breen (ABC), Joe Buck (Fox), Mike Emrick (NBC/NBCSN), Al Michaels (NBC) and Jim Nantz (CBS).

Outstanding studio analyst: Jay Bilas (ESPN), Nate Burleson (CBS/NFL Network), Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN), Harold Reynolds (MLB Network) and Kenny Smith (TNT).

Outstanding game analyst: Doris Burke (ESPN), Cris Collinsworth (NBC), Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN), Jeff Van Gundy (ABC) and John Smoltz (Fox, FS1, MLB Network).

Daily studio show: “The Dan Patrick Show,” “Good Morning Football,” “MLB Tonight,” “NFL Total Access” and “Pardon the Interruption.”

Weekly studio show: “College GameDay,” “Football Night in America,” “Fox NFL Sunday,” “Inside the NBA” and “The NFL Today.”

Rodgers’ new venture

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

He’s the defending Most Valuable Player of the NFL, but Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is doing as much off the field as on. His impressive two-week stint as guest host of “Jeopardy” just aired and now he, along with friend and actor/producer Ryan Rottman, have started a sort of IMDb for sports. It is called Online Sports Database (OSDB) and it launched Tuesday.

The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reports that the two “have raised $2.5 million to create a sports platform that will have information on athletes, including profiles, salaries, endorsements, statistics, charitable foundations and their agent contacts.”

Rottman told Marchand, “I’d say we are a verified Wikipedia meets IMDb.” For now, the site will cover the NFL, NBA and MLB.

Marchand writes, “They plan to make the site financially viable through a subscription model, affiliate deals and advertising. While much of the content will be free, the subscription sections will cost $9.99 per month, which would give anyone access to the athletes’ agents’ contact information.”

For more, Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz interviewed Rottman.

Media tidbits

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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