June 21st, 2024

Reading the ‘tea leaves’: TV networks vamp for time during the wait for the Donald Trump verdict

By David Bauder, The Associated Press on May 30, 2024.

NEW YORK (AP) – The New York accents of court reporters reading testimony. A juror’s facial expression. And tea leaves – plenty of tea leaves.

Jury deliberation meant tense, ultimately boring hours of waiting for lawyers, journalists and others at the Manhattan courtroom where former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial is being held.

It’s the same for television networks covering the case – except they have hours of time to fill for viewers. Rather than switch to something else, they have largely stuck close to the courthouse.

That means no sign, fact or opinion is too small to ignore.

NO CAMERAS IN COURT MEANS MORE TIME TO FILL

Despite New York state rules that prohibit cameras in the courtroom, television news networks have focused on the case almost exclusively while court is in session. Since the case began in mid-April, Fox News Channel’s daytime viewers are up 15% over last year at the same time, MSNBC is up 17% and CNN up 19%, according to the Nielsen company. That explains any reluctance to turn away.

“They could come out with a verdict between now and however long it takes them,” Newsmax reporter Christina Thompson said Thursday – the safest of hundreds of televised predictions since the jury began considering evidence.

The phrase “tea leaves” – a cliched reference to predicting an event’s outcome based on signs that may or may not mean anything – has been heard more times than on a Bigelow’s factory floor.

“Trying to understand what the jury is thinking is the pseudo-science of all pseudo-sciences,” said CNN analyst Elie Honig. “However, you can draw inferences.”

With that, he read some tea leaves. Several analysts interpreted the jury’s first request for testimony that they wanted to hear again to be a positive sign for the prosecution, in that it seemed they were exploring the roots of the alleged crime.

But MSNBC analyst Danny Cevallos cautioned that there could be an entirely different interpretation – that perhaps a juror who is leaning toward acquittal remembered something from the testimony that bolstered that opinion, and wanted fellow jurors to hear it.

TRYING TO PUT THEMSELVES IN JURORS’ SHOES

On Fox News, former prosecutor and congressman Trey Gowdy said he would look at the eyes and expressions of jurors during such read-backs for some indication of who considers that information most important.

Some network time was spent getting into the details of what those jurors were hearing, including reading for viewers those same transcripts.

At one point, MSNBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart marveled at the idea of 12 citizens uniting to examine facts and determine the fate of a former president. “I’m still in awe of this system,” said Diaz-Balart, whose family emigrated from Cuba a year before he was born.

It was different over at Fox, where lawyer Phil Holloway complained of a “rogue” judge who was trying to “weaponize” a trial to influence a presidential election. Fox and Newsmax carried Trump’s live comments Thursday morning about a “rigged” trial, while CNN and MSNBC ignored them. Analysts at outlets aimed at conservative viewers frequently downplayed the case against him.

“I happen to think there is almost nothing but an upside for Donald Trump,” said Fox analyst Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush. “If he is convicted, I think most people are going to dismiss it, or it’s already built in to what they expect of Donald Trump. But if he’s acquitted or if there is a hung jury, it’s going to boost him like a rocket ship.”

At Newsmax, commentators took time to criticize liberals at MSNBC, specifically analyst Andrew Weissmann’s comment that he had a “man-crush” on Judge Juan Merchan for how he has handled the trial.

Networks frequently ran onscreen clocks to show how long jurors had been deliberating. But it seemed almost meaningless: At one point, MSNBC estimated jurors had been considering the case for an hour and 45 minutes less than NewsNation did.

The suspense, MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace said, was “like waiting for a new pope.”

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David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.

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