The Chauvin verdict, and a narrow lens on justice

Last May, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, the police department released a press statement headlined, “Man dies after medical incident during police interaction.” The statement said that officers responded to “a forgery” and that the suspect seemed under the influence; he resisted arrest, fell suddenly under medical distress, and died in a hospital. It said no weapons were used and no officers were harmed. Hours later, a video, shot by seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier, revealed the interaction: Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck, as Floyd cried out that he couldn’t breathe and onlookers pleaded with Chauvin to stop, until Floyd became unresponsive. 

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd. CNN broadcast the final moments of Chauvin’s trial live, next to footage of a celebratory scene outside the courthouse. “Let’s get immediate reaction from Don Lemon,” Wolf Blitzer said. Lemon responded, “Justice has been served. You can see the reaction from the crowd, how America feels.” On MSNBC, Jason Johnson, a regular contributor to the network’s coverage, told anchor Nicolle Wallace, “What this says to me is that in order to get a nominal degree of justice in the country is that a Black man has to be murdered, on air, viewed by the entire world… That doesn’t make me feel happy.” Michael Steele, another commentator and the former chair of the Republican National Committee, disagreed, saying at one moment, “the system worked.”

To agree with Lemon or Johnson or Steele is beside the point. After years of American popular protests, cable news still turns away from the grassroots, not only when seeking policy solutions but even when documenting reactions. As Alden Woods, an Arizona Republic reporter, put it, “Why have news networks chosen more airtime for pundits over listening to the people of Minneapolis, who are literally on the screen right now.”

Much news coverage of the verdict channeled a sense of jubilance—through punditry, and through the views of those figures media organizations chose to highlight; police unionsPresident Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, among others, all praised the outcome of the trial. Such a ubiquitous focus on the verdict, filtered through familiar figures, narrowed the scope of justice to a single trial and its outcome—as though to suggest, if all these people can agree that the verdict was just, what’s not to celebrate? It’s an odd tension for newsrooms that spent last summer debating the merits of abolitionism. “What if we were to grapple with what it means to not rely on policing?” Josie Duffy Rice asked last year in CJR, in a conversation about media coverage of police abolition. “I think that when this feels theoretical to you as a journalist, those conversations seem too big and too unnecessary and too leftist and too pie-in-the-sky. They’re not. They’re actually crucial for us to evolve as a country.”

Many of the simplistic notions of “justice” relayed by news outlets were betrayed by coverage of how law enforcement had prepared for the possibility of protests last night. The Times, for example, wrote that “police chiefs are urging protesters to be peaceful,” despite reporting which showed that police officers had acted violently last summer during the protests that followed Floyd’s murder. As the writer Alex Pareene noted, “the coast-to-coast police and military buildup in advance of this moment shows precisely how far we are from any true justice.”

The concerns that powered protests and broad efforts at police abolition persist beyond one trial. News media reported at least three fatal police shootings—two in Colorado, and one in Ohio—in the day before jurors delivered Chauvin’s verdict. Much of the early coverage of those shootings hinged on statements from law enforcement officials, despite reporting—from CJR and others—which details how the police have lied to the public through the press. No surprise, then, that many wondered, after Chauvin’s verdict arrived, how the trial’s outcome might have looked if Frazier hadn’t filmed the fatal encounter.

In the moments that the press turned to Floyd’s family, the scope of the story expanded. “This is a pivotal moment in history,” Philonise Floyd, George’s brother, said to CNN’s Sara Sidner. “All I can think about is Emmett Till. I think about Sandra Bland, I think about Ms. Carr, Eric Garner. It’s so many people. We have new people being killed, Daunte Wright. I think about Jacob Blake. I think about Philando Castile. All of these people, they’re all dead…. We all need justice, we’re all fighting for one reason, and it’s justice for all. I think today has been an occasion where people can celebrate. But tomorrow it’s back to business.”

Below, more on police violence and the Chauvin verdict

  • Ma’Khia Bryant: Last night at a press conference, police in Columbus, Ohio released body camera footage after an officer fatally shot Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager. The Columbus Dispatch called the near-immediate release of the video “unprecedented.” The state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation will lead the investigation into the killing, the Dispatch reported, as is typical in instances of police shootings in Columbus.
  • “Doxxing” and the jury: On Monday, Abby Simons, an editor with the Minneapolis Star Tribunetweeted the paper’s article about who comprised the jury. Thousands of people responded, many of whom accused Simons of “doxxing” the jury; in reality, the court released this information on television. Andy Mannix, a courts reporter for the Star Tribunetweeted, “This is perpetuated by people with large platforms who know/should know better but still are putting local reporters’ safety at risk for bonus likes,” linking to a tweet from Jesse Kelly, a conservative talk show host, promising to “track down and publish the information of any journalist who doxxes one of these jurors.” Mark Vancleave, a photojournalist with the paper, tweeted, “My colleagues are being dragged by an internet mob for doing their job of sharing useful and timely information with our community–and doing it well.”
  • The local view: The pages of the Star Tribune covered “elation” and “relief” felt among the people of Minneapolis after the verdict arrived. Minneapolis Public Radio led with the response among local officials, who promised further “systemic change.” The Pioneer Press in the Twin Cities also reported on “celebration in the air” and spoke with Valerie Castile, Philando Castile’s mother, who told the paper, “I was elated, just ecstatic.” And the Sahan Journal called the verdict “a long-delayed reckoning with racism and police violence,” in a piece published alongside an article questioning why there hasn’t been a federal investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department.

Other notable stories:

  • The Village Voice, New York’s famed alt-weekly, is back. Peter Barbey ended editorial production in 2018; two years later, Brain Calle acquired the paper. He told the Los Angeles Times in January that he saw the Voice fulfilling a vital role––in its muckraking investigations and its nightlife coverage––in a post-Covid world. Calle’s tenure at the LA Weekly has been marked by layoffs, disinvestment from investigations, and a rightward turn. Still, the new Voice went live, in print, on Saturday.
  • Today, shareholders of Tribune Publishing will vote on whether to accept Alden Global Capital’s purchase officer, the Washington Post reported. After a small number of billionaires showed interest in saving some of the country’s best newspapers from a hedge fund notorious for cutting resources, they appeared to have changed their minds. It seems the hedge fund may still win in the end. Stewart Bainum, the hotel magnate who had worked to challenge Alden’s bid, “said he was still seeking to put together a group of investors to buy the company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and other papers,” the Post wrote. “And Tribune signaled this weekend it would be open to hearing any such proposal, should it emerge.”
  • NBC News’s Dylan Byers reported on shakeups at the top level of network morning shows. “They betray a larger trend: In the era of streaming and social media, when the audience for broadcast news is in sharp decline and the companies are navigating a tricky transition to digital, the entire industry faces an unsettled future.” Last week, Jon Allsop wrote for CJR about the current high level turnover in journalism’s leadership posts and what it says about the state of our industry.

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR and a reporter and writer based in New York.