A Historic Verdict Made for Riveting TV. Then the Punditry Began.


At 5:06 p.m. on Thursday, shortly after NBC News broke in with a special report, Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt told viewers that a verdict in the first criminal trial against an American president was imminent. After weeks of dramatic testimony that, with no cameras in the courtroom, made little impact on TV, the tension spilled onto the airwaves all at once.

“Oh, here we go,” Ms. Guthrie said abruptly, as the off-camera voice of Laura Jarrett, NBC’s senior legal correspondent, could be heard in the background. “Guys! We need to go,” Ms. Jarrett said. “We need to go.”

“Go,” Ms. Guthrie exhorted. The camera jumped to Ms. Jarrett, outside a Manhattan courthouse, who over the next 87 spellbinding seconds read off each count, one by one, followed by the same two-syllable verdict:

“Guilty.”

On every major TV network, anchors reeled off the outcome for former President Donald J. Trump with an auctioneer’s rapid-fire cadence. “Count 1, guilty; Count 2, guilty; Count 3, guilty,” intoned Ari Melber, the MSNBC legal correspondent, as a sober-faced Rachel Maddow sat beside him jotting notes on a pad. An on-air graphic totted up the final score: 34 guilty, 0 not guilty.

It was the kind of riveting moment that Mr. Trump, a TV connoisseur himself, might have appreciated if he were not its subject. “It is a remarkable moment in American history,” Anderson Cooper said as CNN broke the news.

The announcement of the verdict, however, quickly yielded to sharply divergent reactions in the partisan corridors of cable news.

“There is something that is very wrong here; we have gone over a cliff in America,” said Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host and a longtime Trump loyalist. She called the case “riddled with errors” and castigated the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, and the trial judge for what she deemed a politically motivated prosecution. “God help America after what I’ve seen in the last few weeks,” she said.

Trey Gowdy, another Fox News host, had already primed his viewers to be skeptical of a guilty verdict by calling the instructions given to the jury “pro-prosecution.” The top headline on FoxNews.com blended the news of the guilty verdict with Mr. Trump’s accusation that the trial was “rigged” and “disgraceful.”

On MSNBC, the mood was different.

“This is a definitive and an irreducible verdict,” said Ms. Maddow, who warned that the country now faced a “test” of whether Mr. Trump can “undermine the rule of law, so that people reject this as a legitimate function of the rule of law in our country.” She said the jury “deserves to be thanked for their efforts and to be protected from the kinds of attacks and recrimination that the president and his allies have tried to bring down on this process.”

“The rule of law is mortal,” said the host, Nicolle Wallace, echoing earlier commentary by Ms. Maddow. “It needs to be protected. It isn’t an abstract thing.”

Other anchors took a moment to underline the day’s historical significance. “To hear that word ‘guilty’ not just once but 34 times about a former president of the United States in any context is completely uncharted territory,” the CBS correspondent Major Garrett said. “It is a moment where everything about politics and law and our orientation to both are convulsed as never before.”

On CNN, Jake Tapper declared the day “an unbelievable moment in American history,” while also acknowledging that there was little immediate understanding of how the verdict would play out in this year’s presidential race.

“For those wondering about the political consequences of these 34 guilty verdicts, the short answer is, nobody has any idea,” Mr. Tapper said. “Period.”

Fox News, which employs several of Mr. Trump’s top media allies, is often watched as a benchmark for how the former president’s supporters will react to adverse news. The news anchor Shannon Bream led the channel’s coverage of the verdict, followed later by its chief political anchor, Bret Baier. Several conservative pundits on “The Five” weighed in shortly after 5:30 p.m.

Rather than rail against the jury’s verdict, the host, Greg Gutfeld, said he thought it would redound to Mr. Trump’s benefit. “Americans love a story of a lone man battling a corrupt system with his back against the wall,” he said. “They just gave Popeye a gallon of spinach.”

Jesse Watters, his co-host, concurred. “I thought I’d be angry, but I feel this cool resignation,” he said. “We’re going to get back up, we’re going to regain our strength, and we’re going to vanquish the evil forces that are destroying this republic.”

By the time the evening lineups began at 7, less than two hours after the verdict, the parallel realities of cable news split-screen were on full display.

Laura Ingraham opened her Fox News show by declaring “a disgraceful day for the United States, a day America may never recover from.” And on MSNBC, Joy Reid called Mr. Trump “a hateful, angry man who hates the same system he wants to lead.”

Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.



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