The verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin was announced at 10 p.m. (ET) Saturday, and it was a network news operation, ABC, not any of the all-news cable channels, that had the best initial TV coverage.
By comparison, ABC’s network rivals, NBC and CBS, were not in the same league on TV or online.
The cable news channels initially rode a press conference with prosecution lawyers longer than they should have as Florida State Attorney Angela Corey tried to spin her way out of a failed performance by her team. The cable channels were vamping onscreen, while scrambling backstage.
But once MSNBC and Fox News got their crews in place, it only got worse in some ways.
You could either have the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC calling the verdict an "atrocity" and saying how civil rights leaders fully expected that Zimmerman might not be found guilty in a Florida court and now “we” have to “take it to the Justice Department.”
"This is a slap in the face to those that believe in justice in this country," he added. “We will be in Florida dealing with the Stand Your Ground Law.”
Welcome to MSNBC, the channel where show hosts are allowed to perform onscreen as activists and analysts simultaneously – no matter how big or sensitive the story might be.
Or, you could have Geraldo Rivera outside the courthouse on Fox News telling listeners the question that mattered was: “So, how did it come to this place? … How did this tragedy become a political extravaganza?”
The answer he got from Fox News reporter Phil Keating was essentially that Martin family attorney Benjamin Trump is the one who should be “credited with focusing attention on the case and getting George Zimmerman arrested….”
The first “expert” Rivera interviewed, a lawyer whom the host identified as speaking for the entire Florida legal community, said local lawyers agreed with Rivera “all along” that “it was a stretch to charge with second degree murder… a stretch to even ask for manslaughter.”
Of course, viewers had another choice beyond the ideologically charged cable advocacy of Sharpton or Rivera: CNN.
But throughout the trial, CNN chose to showcase legal analyst Sunny Hostin, and she was awful from Day One. CNN, which had a lot of trial coverage, some of it very good, damaged its overall performance by giving Hostin such a major role.
Her analysis Saturday night: “I’m stunned,” she said of the verdict. “… I think justice took the day off today.”
She was about the only analyst – legal or otherwise – “stunned” by the verdict. But night after night on Anderson Cooper’s 10 p.m. show dedicated to trial coverage, she had seemed incapable of seeing Zimmerman as anything but guilty and the defense as winning any major victories in trying to defend the accused.
On the plus side for CNN Saturday night, the hustle shown by Piers Morgan in getting an interview with George Zimmerman’s brother.
One of the more fascinating sideshows in Saturday night’s coverage was the way the prosecution was getting pounded for its losing performance from both the left and the right.
At MSNBC, legal analyst Lisa Bloom ripped them for shying away from a full discussion of race, while on Fox, Rivera attacked them for not letting the defense know about evidence until the last minute – or past the last minute.
Another sidebar to the national media coverage was what happened in Baltimore.
Because ABC’s “20/20” was the regularly scheduled 10 p.m. program and ABC News whipped into coverage of the Zimmerman verdict, the best place to be initially in Baltimore was WMAR, the city's ABC affiliate.
But at 11 p.m. when other affiliates in Baltimore went away from the networks and live to their own newscasts, WMAR went to an infomercial, “Cindy Crawford Reveals Secret of Ageless Beauty.”
WJZ, WBAL and WBFF all carried some version of Zimmerman verdict coverage during the 11 p.m. newscasts with a promise to go live to a press conference at police headquarters in Baltimore where civic and religious leaders would be reacting to the verdict.
But the conference appeared to have not yet started as the local news ended and WBAL, Baltimore’s NBC affiliate, went to “Saturday Night Live” and WJZ, the city’s CBS-owned station, went to “Criminal Minds.”
Amid my channel hopping, I caught up with the Baltimore press conference at 11:46 p.m. on WBFF after it had already started.
It featured area ministers and police officials urging citizens to “work peacefully,” in the words of one minister, toward racial justice. The press conference looked to be an enlightened effort in public service on the part of those who spoke.