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How the news media covered domestic terrorism on Capitol Hill


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

The events on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, will be remembered as an act of domestic terrorism against the United States; as a national tragedy; and as a real-life manifestation of online radicalization. Here are the key questions heading into Thursday:

— Is President Trump a danger to the republic? Is he fit to hold office until January 20?

— Will the 25th Amendment be invoked, like a wide range of opinion leaders are urging?

— Will the White House aides who resigned, like Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Matthews, speak publicly? If not, why not?

— How many more White House aides will resign? Will Trump have any spokespeople left?

— Will the Murdochs do anything to rein in the incendiary programming on Fox News? What about Newsmax and OAN?

— Will the insurrectionists target other locations in DC in the coming days?

— Far from Washington, there were skirmishes in several state capitals on Wednesday. Will this continue?

— Ten years from now, what will this disaster be called? The “Trump riots?”

Now let’s take a look at how the nation’s news media covered this disgraceful day, beginning with Thursday’s front pages. The New York Times says, in all caps, “TRUMP INCITES MOB.” The Washington Post’s banner headline says “Trump mob storms Capitol.” The Wall Street Journal says “MOB STORMS CAPITOL.”

Writing for history

— Peter Baker’s lead for The New York Times: “So this is how it ends.”

— Dan Balz’s lead for the Washington Post: “Jan. 6, 2021, will be remembered as one of the darkest days in the history of the United States.”

— Kevin Liptak’s lead for CNN: “Three years, 11 months and 17 days after President Trump warned from the West Front of the US Capitol that ‘American carnage stops right here,’ the very spot he stood was engulfed by his own protesters bringing carnage of their own.

America is in a “reality crisis,” Charlie Warzel wrote, “in which millions of Americans are actively courting conspiracies and violent, radical ideologies in order to make sense of a world they don’t trust.”

— CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted shortly before midnight: “Folks, it was a dark day. The president and his enablers — and those to whom they’ve lied — continue to test and threaten to destroy the American experiment. But many are pushing back & I’m confident we will survive and emerge stronger. Thank you for watching and God bless you.”

“Lies have consequences”

That’s what Senator Ben Sasse said on Wednesday: “Lies have consequences.” Other reality-based members of the Republican party, like Adam Kinzinger, also denounced the conspiracy theory rot inside their party. But they remained a minority within the GOP.

Many Democrats were much more forceful in their repudiations of the political and media climate that this unfolded in. Bill Clinton said “the assault was fueled by more than four years of poison politics spreading deliberate misinformation, sowing distrust in our system, and pitting Americans against one another.” Barack Obama called out both “a political party and its accompanying media ecosystem” for being “largely unwilling to tell their followers the truth” about Biden’s victory. And soon-to-be majority leader Chuck Schumer denounced Trump along with “the captive media that parrots his lies.”

The rioters organized online

They “had been openly planning for weeks on both mainstream social media and the pro-Trump internet,” Jane Lytvynenko and Molly Hensley-Clancy of BuzzFeed News reported. “On forums like TheDonald, a niche website formed after Reddit banned the subreddit of the same name, they promised violence against lawmakers, police, and journalists if Congress did not reject the results of the 2020 election.”

Some of the rioters live-streamed their crimes, so there is an enormous amount of video evidence. The FBI is now appealing to the public for information about the rioting.

Members of the media were attacked

There were multiple cases of journalists being targeted by rioters on Wednesday. Some news crews traveled with private security — in the nation’s capital. In one particularly egregious case, a live shot location outside the Senate was surrounded by men who menaced news crews and damaged TV equipment. The AP confirmed that some of the outlet’s equipment “was stolen and destroyed during today’s violent protests in Washington.”

Post journalists arrested

“Two Washington Post video journalists,” Zoeann Murphy and Whitney Leaming, “tweeted on Wednesday night that they’d been arrested during the unrest at the U.S. Capitol,” TheWrap’s Lindsey Ellefson wrote. The 6pm curfew in DC exempted members of the media, as every police officer should know. “Our journalists were just doing their jobs and should never have been arrested in the first place. However, we’re pleased that police quickly released them,” a Post spokesperson said.

Notes about the cable and broadcast coverage

— “The chaos picked up steam at an hour when most of the television networks focused primarily on the congressional process,” The Post’s Jeremy Barr and Paul Farhi wrote in a recap of the day’s coverage. “It took time for many reporters and producers to realize what was going on and shift their coverage as congressional correspondents turned into war correspondents, phoning in reports as they ducked for cover.” At that point, anchors and commentators “were quick to call out the behavior of the rioters in fierce, direct language — even on Fox News.”

— As the minutes and hours went on, many news outlets stopped saying “protesters” and started saying “rioters” and “mobs.”

— CNN “sent internal guidance saying staff can refer to the Capitol Hill rioting today as ‘domestic terrorism,'” Max Tani reported.

— Former NBC News executive Mark Lukasiewicz, who has been quite critical of his former network and the other broadcasters in recent months, expressed “respect and admiration for the job they did and risks they endured today. Journalism has never been more essential.”

— ABC and NBC scrapped their entire prime time lineups for news coverage. CBS initially aired sitcoms at 8 p.m. Eastern but then resumed a CBS News special report.

— The sober coverage up and down the dial made Fox’s prime time talk show programming seem all the more strange.

The right’s new narrative: Antifa, Antifa, Antifa

If you thought Wednesday’s invasion of the Capitol was going to break the fever, think again. “The rioters were Antifa” is becoming a standard talking point on the far right. From Sarah Palin to Candace Owens, from Laura Ingraham to Lin Wood, many commentators floated the idea that left-wing radicals were responsible for some of the violence that played out on Wednesday. Texas AG Ken Paxton even tweeted, ‘These are not Trump supporters.’ But as Ben Collins noted, there were in fact recognizable Trump supporters inside the Capitol building. Accusing left-wingers is just a cynical way to excuse what happened and change the conversation.

What Fox and Newsmax viewers heard

Along with all the “Antifa” excuse-making, here’s a sampling of what was heard on pro-Trump TV, via Oliver Darcy. Everyone condemned the violence, but then…

— Newsmax’s Greg Kelly attacked the media for its coverage, arguing journalists had been condescending toward Trump supporters. Kelly also interviewed Rudy Giuliani who expressed disappointment in Mike Pence.

— On Fox, Tucker Carlson appeared to exonerate his audience for what happened: “It’s not your fault, it is their fault,” he said, continuing the “us-vs-them” theme of his show.

— Carlson also asserted that Wednesday’s events will be used to “crack down” on “civil liberties.”

— On Newsmax at the same time, Grant Stinchfield also bashed the media for not buying into voter fraud conspiracy theories.

— Sean Hannity continued lying about the election, obsessed over voter fraud, and focused on the fact that the Capitol complex needs more security. His guests complained about left-wing mobs and said Republicans are held to double standards.

— Laura Ingraham, who mocked those who said that the Black Lives Matter uprisings were mostly peaceful, kept pointing out that most of the folks in DC were peaceful, but “because of a small contingent of loons, these patriots have been unfairly maligned.”

Notes and quotes

— Stephen Colbert went live on CBS Wednesday night and began his show by asking, “Hey, Republicans who supported this president… have you had enough?”

— Variety’s Daniel D’Addario: “For all that Trump’s use of social media has been heralded, he was and remains a creature of television, and — today — television outmatched him, placing in counterpoint violent and disturbing images the American people could judge for themselves with Trump’s own words.”

— New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik: As the riot unfolded, “everyone knew he was watching. They would have known even if he hadn’t announced it. Donald Trump has been an obsessive binge-watcher of TV coverage of his own presidency, for hours a day. Of course he would be glued to its next act.”

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