Before the verdict in the killing of George Floyd came in, Jake Tapper of CNN suggested that a guilty finding would potentially unite the nation.
“This didn’t divide a nation at all!” said Greg Gutfeld, who hosts a late-night show on the network. This argument collapsed in on itself practically as soon as it was made — Gutfeld went on to cite critics who had claimed that Chauvin was “not a bug in the system” but “the system itself,” suggesting that there was indeed division over the Floyd story. Gutfeld’s stated position was that “everybody agreed that this was disgusting and ugly and needed justice.”
This was the general line of Fox’s on-air voices in the wake of a story that might be seen as cutting against certain of the network’s preconceptions. Tucker Carlson, for instance, had described an ominous “media blackout” obscuring what he represented as mitigating factors in Floyd’s death. “The question of whether George Floyd was murdered is, in fact, ‘disputed’ by a majority of Americans” Carlson concluded ominously. “The bad news is you’re still not allowed to say that out loud.” This would seem to suggest a deeply divided America, contrary to Gutfeld. (That Carlson had also spread debunked claims that Floyd had died of a drug overdose suggests, too, a network that was eager to foment that division, even as fellow Fox opinion star Sean Hannity had criticized the police well before the verdict.)
That tone of eagerness to second-guess lay a bit beneath the surface in Fox’s immediate coverage of the verdict — perhaps because it happened during the day, when Fox still aims for something slightly more even-handed. Even still, the absence of onetime face of the network’s news side Shepard Smith was felt as subtext slipped into text. Gutfeld overstepped even by Fox’s own standard — getting shouted down by Jeanine Pirro — by saying that ”I am glad he was found guilty on all charges, even if he’s not guilty on all charges,” darkly raising the specter of imagined riots that might have happened had the verdict gone a different way, and suggesting that the jury had made their decision for reasons external to the evidence.
This ran against the narrative Fox News had been constructing, one about the system acting as it should in order to bring a single bad apple to justice. In the main, Fox had been, in the minutes after Chauvin’s guilty verdict, careful to seed their dark suggestions with subtlety within a generally affirming-seeming message. Pirro and others seemed flatly ready to move on. Elsewhere, Jesse Watters, for instance, compared pro-Floyd masses assembled outside the courthouse to fans of a sports team that won a championship, and pleaded that they not “light things on fire” or “riot” — but he was sure to praise the manner in which the system worked. Similarly, Martha MacCallum praised the jury for administering due process, even despite Chelsea Handler (a private citizen, and one who hasn’t had a show since 2017) having tweeted that she didn’t think there needed to be a trial.
Two versions of a network that has made its name on deepening American division came to a head in a moment that epitomized that division. That split within Fox News seemed apparent from moment to moment and even within sentences, as personalities shifted from declaring that there was no larger problem with the country and that it was a relief that the case was over to finding and amplifying any mitigating factor they could. This split — amplified by the presence of freewheeling evening personalities in a daytime news breakout, something it’s hard to imagine happening in the same way during Smith’s tenure at the network — seems likely to deepen, for all that the Pirros of the network seemed ready to turn the page. To wit: Ted Williams, a Black contributor to the network, called in to describe Gutfeld as “off his meds” for his comments about the verdict being a potential way to pragmatically avoid violence, even if potentially unjust.
“Off my meds?” Gutfeld muttered. “You’re lucky you’re not around here.” As a tone to strike in the midst of major breaking news around justice and race in this country, it was perfectly indicative of a network that’s all too willing to allude to what it really thinks, even if it won’t quite say it.