Media Coverage of Trump’s Arraignment

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

Coverage of the Donald Trump arraignment on Tuesday was, in a word, exhaustive.

Wall-to-wall coverage with blaring “BREAKING NEWS” banners and, literally, dozens upon dozens of anchors, reporters and analysts punctuating the coverage on not only cable news networks, but broadcast networks, as well.

ABC, CBS and NBC all broke into regular programming with the big three evening news anchors (David Muir, Norah O’Donnell and Lester Holt) anchoring the coverage. CNN brought in prime-time bigwigs Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper. Rachel Maddow hosted MSNBC’s prime-time coverage.

And, to be sure, all of that was the right call. As Cooper accurately said, Tuesday was “an extraordinary moment in history.”

Trump became the first former president to face criminal charges. Manhattan prosecutors charged Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records related to hush money payments to an adult movie star prior to the 2016 presidential election.

This paragraph from The Associated Press’ Michael R. Sisak, Eric Tucker, Jennifer Peltz and Will Weissert explained what happened Tuesday, and what it all meant: “The arraignment in Manhattan, though largely procedural in nature, was nonetheless the first time in U.S. history that a former president has faced a judge in his own criminal prosecution. The indictment amounts to a remarkable reckoning for Trump after years of investigations into his personal, business and political dealings, unfolding against the backdrop not only of his third campaign for the White House but also against other investigations in Washington and Atlanta that might yet produce even more charges.”

As the coverage across the networks began, Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier said, “It’s going to be fascinating, and it is historic.”

There were points of intrigue, flashes of activity, a few moments of significance. And, in between, it was all over the place. As The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin wrote, “The media coverage of former President Donald J. Trump’s arraignment on Tuesday could be summed up by the title of this year’s big Oscar winner: Everything, everywhere, all at once.”

But the coverage also brought out the most frustrating part of a big news story — filling time when little or nothing is happening. Suddenly, Trump riding in a car from his hotel to the courthouse was treated like a car chase from one of the “Fast and the Furious” movies. Viewers were subjected to lengthy shots of authorities milling around in court building hallways. Even brief glimpses of Trump walking to his car or through the hallways were treated like UFO sightings, with anchors interrupting guests to say, “There he is! There’s Donald Trump!”

Through it all, anchors and analysts had to fill time talking about where Trump might be waiting, what was going to happen next, what kind of mood Trump was in.

The Associated Press’ David Bauder wrote, “Hour after hour on Tuesday, the story occupied the full attention of broadcast and cable news networks. They waited for glimpses of Trump’s face to interpret his expression, followed his motorcade’s movements from the air, speculated on how it must feel to be arrested.”

Even Trump took to social media to call it “surreal.”

But at times, the day’s coverage turned from surreal to silly as news folks speculated on what Trump was feeling based simply on a still photograph from inside the courtroom.

Not that the networks had a choice. This is a huge story. It has to be covered. As Muir said, it’s “something we’ve never seen.”

But as longtime media columnist Margaret Sullivan tweeted, “Watching the sausage being made here.”

Because cameras weren’t allowed into the courtroom — and because the hearing lasted nearly an hour — there was plenty of time for networks to fill in a day full of time to fill.

As Bauder wrote, “That led to constant, mostly empty talk about what might happen. Will Trump’s motorcade to the court take Fifth Avenue or the FDR Drive? (The latter.) Will a mugshot of Trump be taken and released? (No.) Would the former president speak to the media before he goes into the court? (No.) After the hearing is done? (Also no.) CNN re-ran footage of Trump walking out of a doorway, a court officer declining to hold the door for him, and speculated about the last time something like this had happened to the former president.”

So the coverage was exhaustive, but it also was exhausting.

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