On ‘Historic’ Day, News Media Scrambled to Find Something to Show Us

Photo for The Washington Post by Aristide Economopoulos
A swarm of photographers and onlookers tries to catch sight of Donald Trump as he walks into Manhattan’s criminal courthouse on Tuesday.

On a day the news media constantly described as “historic,” it didn’t actually look like much.

With hundreds of journalists on hand, and TV cameras in the air and on the ground, former president Donald Trump’s arraignment Tuesday on felony charges in a Manhattan court produced more anticipation than visual fireworks. If you weren’t in the courthouse, you didn’t see it.

Try as they might for a glimpse of the former president, the media horde didn’t get many. Trump briefly stopped outside Trump Tower to give a defiant (and widely recorded) fist pump before taking off for court. But then, for hours, the former president, the first ever indicted on criminal charges, was almost always out of the picture.

TV helicopters followed Trump’s trip from Fifth Avenue to the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse building, tracking him for cable-news audiences like a drone locking onto a target. As the time of his arraignment approached at 2:15 p.m., the broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC – had interrupted their regular daytime programming to go live with his arraignment on 34 counts stemming from 2016 hush money payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, marking a rare moment when the six leading news networks were all focused on the same story.

Despite turning out early and in force – some journalists lined up Monday night for a seat in the courtroom on Tuesday afternoon – the news media was effectively blindered and hamstrung by Justice Juan Merchan, the New York State Supreme Court judge in the case. Merchan ruled late Monday night that cameras would be banned from his courtroom and that reporters would have to leave all recording devices once they entered his courtroom and two overflow rooms.

About 60 reporters made it to the courtroom; all had to wait until after the proceedings had wrapped up to convey to the world what they saw.

The ban on cameras was particularly nettlesome to the TV networks, which had to resort to showing what was going on outside the court rather than what transpired within it. So network cameras lingered on law enforcement officers milling outside the courthouse, and on a single-camera view of a hallway in the court building, where more officers milled about outside the blacked-out glass doors of the office of District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Trump’s legal nemesis.

The overall perspective was of an outsider looking in. Or trying to.

Just before the arraignment itself, as network talking heads blabbed over the static hallway shot, Trump suddenly emerged from Bragg’s office. His appearance created some excitement among the TV commenters. But then Trump quickly walked out of the shot.

MSNBC, CNN and Fox immediately replayed the three-second clip of the scowling ex-president. Anchor Anderson Cooper on CNN noted that no one held the door open for the former commander in chief and leader of the free world, who shouldered through it himself.

“Probably the first time he’s had to do that in quite some time,” Cooper added.

The first pool photos from inside the courtroom emerged a few minutes later. (Merchan permitted five still photographers to shoot pictures from the jury box but dismissed them before the main event began.) The shots were in many ways ordinary: Trump sitting at the defendant’s table, flanked by lawyers.

But in their own way, they were unprecedented and extraordinary, and TV anchors seized upon them, eager to have something to analyze.

“He doesn’t look like somebody who thinks the indictment is nonsense,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. “He looked really irritated and annoyed. That is a pissed-off Donald Trump.”

“No question,” added his colleague Jamie Gangel. “That is an angry Donald Trump.”

In all, the live coverage had a derivative quality: Unable to show the news itself, cable hosts and anchors had to turn to former prosecutors and defense attorneys to explain how the first criminal prosecution might have unfolded.

“It’s really hard if you’re a former president to be indicted,” mused former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal in a guest spot on MSNBC. “You really have to try. It’s like failing kindergarten.”

For his part, Trump remained uncharacteristically silent, perhaps reserving his true feelings for a prime-time speech on Tuesday. He avoided opportunities to address the ravening reporters. “How did you plead, President Trump?” a reporter shouted as Trump walked from the courtroom.

Trump declined to respond.

His only semipublic comment before his arraignment came on his Truth Social platform: “Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL – WOW, they are going to ARREST ME,” he wrote earlier in the day.

By 3:30 p.m., it was all over but for the commentary. Trump got back in his motorcade and headed for the flight home to Mar-a-Lago.

The TV helicopters buzzed overhead, recording a line of vehicles beating it out of New York City.