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Depp and Heard: A ‘digital-age witch trial’ or a just verdict? | CNN Business

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A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Amber Heard’s 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post turned out to be quite costly.

On Wednesday her ex-husband Johnny Depp prevailed in a defamation case stemming from the op-ed, in which Heard called herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” While the jury said both Heard and Depp were liable for defamation in their lawsuits against each other, they awarded significantly more damages to Depp.

The Post’s story about the verdict is on Thursday’s front page. “Some cheered for what they saw as a victory for men who are wrongly accused of physical and sexual abuse, while the decision struck others as a cruel statement on the rights of victims to speak out,” Travis M. Andrews and Emily Yahr wrote.

So what about the op-ed? The trial revealed that the first draft was ghostwritten by staffers at the ACLU. Furthermore, the headline – “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” – was written by a Post editor, which is a common practice. But “the verdict underscores how Heard is ultimately responsible for the words in the op-ed,” because she signed her name, Insider’s Jacob Shamsian and Ashley Collman wrote.

We reached out to the Post to find out if it would be appending an update or editor’s note to the original piece, notifying readers of what the jury had concluded. Thus far, no such update has been added and the paper is not commenting, but a Post source says an editor’s note will be added to the op-ed on Thursday, with context about the verdict…

The global media hoopla about Depp and Heard was about much more than an op-ed, of course. As civil trial lawyer David Ring said, an “incredible amount of court resources” were spent on “two people who clearly can’t stand each other, who are airing all their dirty laundry and suing each other for money they don’t necessarily need.”

The trial also represented a melding of traditional media with the worlds of TikTok and YouTube. The BBC’s David Sillito spoke with trial watchers who turned into digital participants in a “trial by TikTok,” with posts favoring Depp far eclipsing those supporting Heard. The #JusticeForJohnnyDepp hashtag has garnered roughly 19 billion views, while #JusticeForAmberHeard has amassed about 69 million views.

>> On Wednesday “all the cable news networks covered the reading of the verdict live,” Arizona Republic media critic Bill Goodykoontz wrote. “Most of the broadcast networks cut into programming for it, too…”

>> Law & Crime Network registered 3 million simultaneous live-streaming viewers on YouTube while the verdict was read…

>> “Now that the Depp-Heard show is lurching to a close,” AdAge’s Simon Dumenco wrote, it’s “hard to imagine what the celebrity-industrial complex, and the media industry in general, will find to replace it…”


“A digital-age witch trial” —- that’s how Mary Anne Franks of University of Miami’s School of Law described Depp’s case against Heard in an email to me shortly after Wednesday’s verdict. Franks said the trial was “intended to roll back the minor progress made by the #MeToo movement.”

“It’s not just that the extremely serious issue of domestic violence was turned into a lurid spectacle on social media, but also that mainstream media and public discourse so thoroughly bought into the misogynist narrative that obscured the underlying – and straightforward – legal issues,” said Franks, who in a 2019 paper wrote, “women’s speech that has been most feared, and thus extensively regulated, criticized, and prohibited throughout American history.”

“The overall message is clear: the law doesn’t protect free speech when women speak out against men,” Franks told me.

All throughout the trial, experts said that the ways in which Depp was heralded while Heard was picked apart on platforms like TikTok would have broader ramifications for others considering speaking out about sexual assault or domestic violence. Despite the gravity of the testimonies at the trial, Heard’s abuse claims were excused and cruelly mocked. While many commenters were indeed genuine fans of Depp, the pro-Depp stance wasn’t all organic: As Vice reported, the Daily Wire had spent thousands of dollars promoting ads of articles that largely favored Depp.

In recent days, there appeared to be growing attention to the treatment of Heard, which didn’t match what those taking in the trial were seeing. Tarana Burke’s “MeToo” Movement organization issued a statement acknowledging the “mockery of assault, shame and blame” over the weeks of the trial, calling it a “toxic catastrophe and one of the biggest defamations of the movement.”

“Larger than this trial and jury decision is a movement made up of millions of survivors fighting for their dignity and their right to seek justice, and a country that still has to reckon with why it is so invested in the pain and anguish of violence, rather than remedying it,” the statement continued.

>> Rolling Stone’s main homepage headline right now is about “survivors ‘sickened’ by the Amber Heard verdict…”

>> A second story says “Republicans are doing backflips” over Depp’s victory…


Now that Depp has been awarded $10 million in compensatory damages – will Heard be able to afford this? And will Depp enforce it? A rep for Heard (who was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages) told CNN following the verdict that she plans to appeal. The bigger question is, did Depp just do all of this not for financial gain but to simply prove a point? He said on the stand he wanted to clear his name and in his Wednesday night statement he said the “jury gave me my life back…”

>> Meanwhile, Depp is still in the UK: “He was seen celebrating at a pub in Newcastle with [Jeff] Beck and UK singer Sam Fender,” per The Daily Mail…

Quoted from Various Sources

Published for: WATPFC