Why Fox News is obsessed with Johnny Depp -- its 'Manliness Under Siege' mascot
Johnny Depp (Daniel Leal-Olivas AFP)

In 2017, when Johnny Depp jokingly asked his British audience at that year's Glastonbury Festival, "When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?" then-Fox News host and eternal Donald Trump water bearer Eric Bolling lost his mind.

"Depp, you damn fool. You think you can say these things without repercussions?" he boomed in the monologue for his show "Fox News Specialists" which, if you blinked, you probably missed.

He went on to add, "Maybe Americans will show their distaste for your comments by steering clear of your movies," and advised Depp to take on a role better suited for him, about a man who "abuses drugs and alcohol to the point of being accused of abusing his beautiful young wife, played by Amber Heard. Anyway, this guy ends up a burned-out wasted fool of a man. Wait, that's not a movie role. That's your life!"

Cut to five years later and a few days into Fox News' exhaustive coverage of Depp's defamation trial against his now ex-wife Heard, broadcast live from Virginia's Fairfax County Courthouse. Bolling has moved his shtick over to Newsmax.

Not to worry, because current and very popular Fox News host Greg Gutfeld has picked up the Depp beat. He opened the April 22 episode of his late night talk show, "Gutfeld!" with this reaction to the fallen star's testimony: "There's a bigger story here beyond the seedy salaciousness. The fact is, Depp is humiliating himself for a good reason. He's bearing the most pathetic, saddest part of his life because he feels it must be done. . . . So he's baring his horrible existence warts and all to billions of strangers. How can he do that? Well, somehow he's immunized himself against the effects of embarrassment. And that's a superpower."

Gutfeld went on to admit to feeling "somewhat liberated" by Depp's unburdening. "Give us any embarrassment of riches, and we could turn it into an embarrassment of embarrassment," he observed. "But what makes you immune to suffering is your ability to cease judging other people even as they judge you."

Hats off to the person who wrote that monologue, whether it was Gutfeld or a writer on his show's staff. Aside from the poop jokes, that prose was aglow with empathy. If it only it were coming out of the mouth of a person whose career wasn't built on sneering at and judging people, and wasn't referring to a man accused of intimate partner violence.

But the honesty behind those words matters less than the position they establish, which falls in line with the rest of Fox News' angle on this celebrity trial. Depp may be a wino and a recreational drug vacuum who joked about assassinating Trump in 2017, but to Fox News in 2022, he's the celebrity poster model for the channel's crusade against the war on masculinity.

Depp brought his lawsuit in reaction to an opinion piece published in The Washington Post in which Heard described herself as a survivor of domestic abuse. He claims its publication led to Disney cutting ties with him, ending his starring role in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.

The trial is a potent strain of catnip, bred from the conflict between a once rich and successful male sex symbol and the "difficult" woman who he claims laid him low.

Understand, Fox News isn't taking an official view on America's supposed testosterone depletion crisis. That's Tucker Carlson's bag, stemming from his kooky infomercial sounding the alarm on the nation's declining sperm count and testicular fortitude based on pseudoscientific data. Carlson's advocacy for scrotal tanning may be a nut too far for even his regulars. But Depp's performance as a crumbling shell of a man under assault by a she-devil he says he regrets marrying? That's something lots of people will, and are, getting behind.

Courtroom conflagrations like this are the reason cable news was invented. The celebrities in question didn't murder anyone and aren't accused of child molestation, questions that justified the wall-to-wall coverage of O.J. Simpson's and Michael Jackson's trials decades ago. But together and separately Depp and Heard are a flaming mess, adding to the prurient interest of it all.

For Fox hosts like Nancy Grace, who accurately likened it to watching "two wet cats in a barrel – we're hearing more than we ever wanted to know," the trial is a potent strain of catnip, bred from the conflict between a once rich and successful male sex symbol and the "difficult" woman who he claims laid him low.

Heard never mentioned Depp's name in the 2018 piece, but he alleges the inference was enough to destroy his career. Depp's reputation for trashing hotel rooms and putting hands on strangers has been common knowledge for decades. But since the dawn of his stardom, Depp's reputation for being Gen X's Marlon Brando has led fans to give him a pass.

Since his time on "21 Jump Street," he's played sensitive, broken heroes. He dusted off one version of such a performance for the cameras. "I don't believe that I'm the only human being that's ever punched a door or broken something," he calmly said in response to accusations of violent behavior, backed up by video showing him splintering a cabinet he slammed shut in his kitchen.

Asked if anyone other than Heard expressed concerns about his drinking, Depp replied, "Sir, if anyone had a problem with my drinking at any time in my life, it was me. The only person I've ever abused in my life is myself."

In an explanation regarding one of his texts that imagines Heard as a "burnt corpse," the actor claims it was a "Monty Python" reference, "irreverent and absurd humor." This was presented alongside his insistence that he, too, is a victim of domestic abuse, first at his mother's hands and later at Heard's.

Heard, who filed a $100 million countersuit against Depp in the summer of 2020, takes the stand next week. But she's already sustained an "ordeal by water"-style dunking in the brutish court of public opinion. Testimony by a clinical and forensic psychologist working for Depp's legal team claimed she exhibits signs of borderline personality disorder and histrionic disorder. Depp's claim that she defecated in his bed further bolsters his claims that she's unstable (which, it must be pointed out, is a go-to tactic in domestic abuse and intimate violence cases). Deep even gave the act a highly hashtag-able nickname, calling it a "grumpy."

Whether Depp wins or loses... there's only upside for the purveyors of Manliness Under Siege hysteria.

Depp's debut as Jack Sparrow in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie in 2003 rekindled his adolescent pull even though he was 40 when it came out and made him richer than he already was. Following the article's publication in 2018, when the #MeToo movement was set back on its heels by Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, Depp says Disney cut ties with him.

Relatedly, reports of Depp's profligate life and spending habits have been giving tabloid readers a contact high for decades; as has their schadenfreude at hearing he was on the verge of going broke. Those stories were circulating long before Heard penned her account but blew up substantially when The Hollywood Reporter ran a 2017 story enumerating all the ways Depp allegedly blew through $650 million from the perspective of his former accountant, who Depp sued and accused of fraud and mismanagement.

In contrast, Heard could never claim to have a fandom anywhere nearly as extensive and rabidly supportive as Depp's.

Social media has treated their divorce and continued bickering in the press like a sports team rivalry since 2016, with Depp's aggressive fanbase supporting his allegations that she lied in court documents about enduring "excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny." Understandably, domestic violence advocates found the public's reduction of Heard's serious, alarming accusations to entertainment fodder to be highly disturbing.

But in 2022, with the political right inculcating its messages about #MeToo, "wokeness" and so-called "cancel culture" destroying innocent lives, Depp and Heard's legal meltdown brings all its fears to life, with A-list actors portraying the parts. Gutfeld's review raves that this play is "sad, kinda gross, kinda riveting. But it's also kinda inspiring."

"Up in the Air" author Walter Kirn, one of Gutfeld's panelists, summed it up as "one long personal ad for the most screwed up lady in the world."

Another contributor, professional wrestler George Murdoch (who works as Tyrus), empathized with Depp's dudely struggle with a "we've all been there, who among us?" reaction to Depp's tendency to break stuff. "He'll never get a movie again if he's known, if you're known as a sexual harasser or a domestic violence guy . . . you will never work again. But a drug addict? You can get some work."

(Indeed. Consider the demonstrably permanent cancellation of that guy who recently won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album, who definitely isn't working. Or Bolling, who Fox fired for sending unsolicited photos of his junk to at least three female colleagues. Or, and always and forever, Mel Gibson.)

All this creates a special opportunity for Fox, a right-wing cable channel capitalizing on Carlson's manufactured fears of a Low T pandemic. Whether Depp wins or loses, as he did when a similar case was brought before the British courts, there's only upside for the purveyors of Manliness Under Siege hysteria. His win is a victory in the fight to halt the erosion of American masculinity. His defeat may been seen by paranoid sacks as evidence that their endangerment by the feminist vagenda is real. No matter what the outcome is, all of us who would rather not be subjected to this dumpster will be left feeling a few smudges grumpier.