How The Media Fumbled the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard Verdict

Many pundits were quick to conclude the opposite of what everyone who watched the defamation trial had decided. So social influencers picked up the slack.

Over the past week, so many mainstream media outlets became my Fredo: They broke my heart. They betrayed me. And do you know what? They betrayed you, too.

I won’t make excuses for spending weeks watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Depp v. Heard trial (that’s a conversation for my therapist). But I know now that what I’d thought was a harmless distraction turned into an important lesson akin to the sudden discovery that afternoon chardonnay has health benefits. Like the jury and the millions watching the broadcast of the trial, I saw how Amber Heard, a beautiful, deeply troubled woman, had bullied and abused Johnny Depp, a supremely talented yet drug-addicted and vulnerable man. Both were vicious with each other. But there was a rare difference: Here, the man was not the aggressor. When Depp attacked Heard verbally, mostly to his friends, he resembled a wounded animal—albeit one capable of a certain desperate, brilliant invective (a “sociopathic show pony,” he’d once called his ex-wife).

In this particular case, at this particular time, Heard defamed Depp by suggesting to the world, via a ghost-written op-ed with her name in the byline, that the beloved star was a rapist, a predator, and an abuser; a mountain of evidence—both tapes and edited photos—proved that he was not these things. She then lied about her blackmailing (she’d leaked private information to the press) and lied again about donating the $7 million she was awarded in a settlement to charity. As millions of us sat and witnessed Heard’s testimony and the rebuttals, she lied again and again.

Recall that back in 2006, this Twitter and TikTok-crowned villainess was Hollywood’s It Girl; she rather bravely spoke out about being a bisexual actress at a 2010 Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation event; in 2012, she worked with Amnesty International to raise awareness around immigration policies. Heard is clearly an intelligent and socially minded woman—and as a bonus, as of April 2021, she’s a single mother to Oonagh Paige, perhaps the world’s cutest baby girl.

Johnny Depp waves to his fans as he departs outside court during the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard civil defamation trial at Fairfax County Circuit Court on May 25, 2022 in Fairfax, Virginia. (Photo by Cliff Owen/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)

The trial’s close watchers were largely satisfied after a lopsided verdict favoring Depp was announced on June 1. That was when the warriors of the establishment media stepped in, quick to conclude pretty much the opposite of what essentially everyone who watched the weeks-long trial had thought of the verdict. A headline from The Guardian: “The Amber Heard/Johnny Depp trial was an orgy of misogyny;” Vogue: “It’s time to draw a line. It’s time to believe women—all women.” Oh, please. May I introduce you to Lady Macbeth, Cruella De Ville or Marjorie Taylor Green? New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg even called the trial a “travesty that others will follow” and wrote that now, “other women will think twice” about reporting abuse. Perhaps this will be true, unfortunately—but the blame for any potential chilling effect would not fall on Depp or make him guilty of the abuse he was accused of by Heard. The thing about being a “survivor” is that it requires more than just self-identification; you either are one or you aren’t one. I may identify as a ballerina but the chances of anyone mistaking me for one are scant.

In the end, it was the Los Angeles Times that won the bragging rights for a new low in trial journalism and a new high for irony. Bolstering the idea that the jurors were too heavily influenced by the pro-Depp online army, one reporter wrote “…even witnesses seem to be influenced by the media coverage. At one point, actor Jason Momoa, star of Aquaman, testified via live video in support of his co-star, Heard. Without prompting, he said, ‘Hi Camille’ to Depp’s high profile litigator…”

Uh… that didn’t happen. Heard’s Aquaman 2 co-star never testified. The Times reporter apparently saw what they presumably believed was a scoop in a viral TikTok video and presented it as an actual trial moment in a June 1 report (the paragraph mentioning Momoa’s testimony was later removed from the outlet’s website).

It’s uncanny that a silly TikTok stunt got through to the media while little was heard in our papers of record and on TV news from the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of serious domestic abuse survivors. These creators and influencers were online daily to comment on what was happening in the Virginia courtroom, essentially saying: “Amber Heard doesn’t speak for me, and, in fact, Amber Heard triggers me.” Candace Ranee is one of the dozens of TikTok creators who had this type of message: 

“Dear Amber Heard: I don’t want you as my representative speaking for me. There are thousands and thousands of us that feel the same way. We watched this entire trial. Your accusations against Johnny Depp were false and we could all see it. I’m an SA survivor, a survivor of narcissistic abuse, domestic violence, attempted murder… Survivors recognize other survivors and we don’t recognize you as a survivor. We recognize you as an abuser. We are so happy your ex-husband, Johnny Depp, won his defamation lawsuit against you. It is a big, huge victory for the domestic violence community to shift us into a direction where we stop fixating on gender. Abuse is abuse….it can happen to anybody….Your (loss) didn’t take women a step back [so] don’t make this into a narrative about women and feminism.

Unfortunately, anger towards the establishment press’s coverage of this trial is ratcheting up as these news outlets are already facing waning faith and trust. Frankly, the media can’t afford this right now. Like most, I want to believe that I’m getting accurate reporting on what’s happening in Congress and with our teetering economy. If media outlets think the Depp v. Heard trial is beneath them and therefore skimped on reporting on it as the case unfolded, then they should not report on it when the case has concluded (and I’ll manage to satisfy my gossip fix with TMZ and the New York Post). It’s a pretty simple rule for the press: Don’t take shortcuts with your reporting then pontificate on issues you haven’t actually covered.

We need the media to be great. I shudder as I hear right-wingers attack my precious “mainstream media.” But the scant or contemptuous reporting on this trial from so many outlets has made me begin to understand how the right-wing, MSM haters feel. The media’s palpable disdain for the Depp v Heard trial jury and for the content creators who put in the hours to actually watch it, while so many journalists clearly didn’t, is downright shameful.

Recently, one Hollywood executive moaned to Vanity Fair that the Depp v Heard trial has given the political right “further ammunition about the excesses and ‘out-of-touchness’ of Hollywood and its denizens.” Yes—the left-wingers can be out of touch and are excellent at both missing a point and squandering an opportunity that’s been served up right under their noses.

Imagine if the lesson the media gleaned from this trial were reframed to resemble how it’s been understood across social media? Far from the bitter end to the victims’ rights movement, the verdict actually marks a powerful moment of inclusion for all abuse victims and survivors. One online creator, who goes by The Spiritual Counselor, put it this way: “This isn’t a backward step for [domestic violence] or even for women. It’s a forward step for victims of domestic violence, regardless of their gender, and it is a backward step for liars, manipulators and narcissists who call out their victims as their abusers—which is a really common thing a narcissist or a psychopath will do.”

Always believe women? Nope. Hear out any person, regardless of gender, who is claiming that they’re a victim of abuse? Always.

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