By:
April 20, 2021

An updated version of this piece and further coverage and analysis are available in today’s edition of the Poynter Report.

“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 for one moment.

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.

In a rare move regarding a verdict in a trial, all three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) 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.

The coverage was not so good while filling time 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. 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 and 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. One powerful moment came when a 31-year-old Black woman who has lived in the Twin Cities 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 without stepping in some controversy. 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.

That aside, 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.

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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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