Democracy under siege—and the press, too

On Wednesday afternoon, a mob of right-wing extremists and indignant livestreamers stormed the Capitol. Along their path, they left a note to the journalists who were covering the scene, a message that seemed a harrowing extension of a presidency marked by anti-press virulence: etched into a door was the phrase murder the media. It’s hard not to take that seriously—as was noted by Rachael Pacella and Paul W. Gillespie, both journalists who had survived the 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, Maryland. And yet, as Masha Gessen wrote for The New Yorker, no one in charge seemed to take the mob seriously enough.

The harm done to the press was alarming. All through the afternoon, reporters in Washington photographed rioters kicking, toppling, stomping, and pouring water on their equipment as they yelled “Fuck you, propaganda!” and chanted “CNN sucks.” An AP spokesperson told the New York Times that members of the crowd stole some equipment; a group appeared to be trying to burn it. One person shouted at a couple of Washington Post reporters, “How many more fucking people gotta die? All the lies you’ve told, all this time––that’s what made this happen. A lady died because of your lies!” (That was possibly a reference to Ashli Babbitt, the woman fatally shot by police during the siege.) Yesterday afternoon, the US Press Freedom Tracker said it was investigating several instances of assault, equipment damage, and other mayhem caused by the mob.

Hours before the violence began, Donald Trump had addressed his supporters outside the White House. “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by a bold and radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing, and stolen by the fake news media—that’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing,” he told the crowd. “We will never give up and never concede.” His words were fuel. He was joined, too, by other elected officials, who piled on smears against journalists: Richard Hudson, a congressman from North Carolina, complained that “the hyper-partisan hysteria from some on the left and in the media is predictable”; Mo Brooks, a representative from Alabama, wrote on Twitter, “Please, don’t be like #FakeNewsMedia, don’t rush to judgment on assault on Capitol”; and Kelly Loeffler, the outgoing senator from Georgia, made taking on “the fake news media” part of her failed campaign. The list goes on.

As my colleague Lauren Harris argued early this week, democracy is hard work to which journalists must constantly tend––for the sake of a more just world, and for ourselves, too. The events of Wednesday left the press with an immense task. We have to continue to ask tough questions about how officials allowed the break-in to happen in the first place. We need to grapple with the effects of an information ecosystem entirely separate from the reality-based press; as Charlie Warzel wrote, for the Times, “For years now, professional grifters, trolls, true believers and political opportunists have sowed conspiratorial lies, creating intricate and dangerous alternate realities. We are now witnessing the reaping. It is likely to get worse.” And, crucially, journalists must deepen their appreciation of the precariousness of American democracy; as Jelani Cobb wrote for The New Yorker back in September, “The United States is considered one of the most stable democracies in the world, but it has a long, mostly forgotten history of election-related violence.”

Since Wednesday, five people have died as a result of the mob’s attack. The Capitol was breached, property destroyed. Police officers “abandoned their post,” as Marcus diPaola, a reporter who filmed viral footage from the scene, told New York magazine’s Justin Miller—a stark contrast to the sight of militarized law enforcement cracking down on Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, battering members of the press in their wake. The Times reported that, in the hours following the insurrection, Capitol police made a total of sixty-eight arrests, many of them violators of DC’s 6pm curfew. Two of those handcuffed were journalists from the Washington Post. “Some days are like this,” one of the pair, Zoeann Murphy, tweeted after she was released. Then she went back to work.

Below, more on US press freedom and the insurrection:

  • CJR weighs in: As the events of Wednesday unfolded, Ariana Pekary, our CNN public editor, questioned the reliance on political pundits, rather than law enforcement experts, to cover the siege. Gabriel Snyder, our Times public editor, lauded that paper’s coverage––and asked why its clear-eyed framing of the day hadn’t been present throughout the Trump era. Feven Merid looked at foreign coverage; Howard Polskin wrote about the response from right-wing media. Mathew Ingram wrote about how platforms and news organizations have struggled to react in real time. And Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, implored the press to look inward and reflect on how journalists legitimized Trump for years before the breach of Congress. (We’ll have more rolling out soon; keep your eyes peeled.)
  • The missing public record: In September, CJR mapped dozens of press-freedom violations related to pandemic reporting around the world. The United States was no exception: last March, the governor of Hawai‘i “suspended open meetings rules and public record laws”; in New York, police seized a photographer’s drone as he filmed footage of a burial site, then charged him with a misdemeanor; in Florida, the Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas recalled “countless examples of the state impeding and refusing to turn over basic public records” related to covid-19.
  • Trouble in Florida: The vaccine distribution process in Florida has hit snags—convoluted websites have been puzzling to seniors eligible for the vaccine; some have had to wait in line overnight. When a CNN reporter, Rosa Flores, asked the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, about the problems with the rollout, DeSantis repeatedly interrupted her, then mocked her questions. Channel WESH 2 News has the video and the transcript.
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Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday was the deadliest day of the pandemic yet, with 4,027 deaths, according to the Washington Post’s tracker––the first day that the United States has logged more than 4,000 deaths. BuzzFeed News covered the slow pace of vaccine distribution—with one outlier: West Virginia, where more people have been vaccinated per capita than anywhere else in the country. The success is partly the result of West Virginia not being reliant on Walgreens and CVS, according to NPR; since they’re less common in the state, pharmacists have been able to move quickly and efficiently.
  • Neil Sheehan, the journalist who in 1971 obtained the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times, exposing the needless horrors of the Vietnam War, has died. He was eighty-four years old; his wife, Susan, attributed his death to complications of Parkinson’s disease. In 2015, while struggling with Parkinson’s, Sheehan told a Times reporter, Janny Scott, how he landed the story—on the condition that Scott not publish the interview until his death. Six years later, the article is out, recounting how Sheehan made illicit copies of the papers in order to report on them. “Those papers are the property of the people of the United States,” Sheehan told Scott. “They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it.”
  • More news from the Times: In mid-December, when an internal review found that the Caliphate podcast fell short of the paper’s standards, and editors reassigned its host, Rukmini Callimachi, from the terrorism beat, questions began to emerge about why her top producer, Andy Mills, hadn’t been similarly reprimanded; he even hosted an episode of The Daily a few days later. Then, late last month, women began to come forward on Twitter about sexist encounters they’d had with Mills. (In 2018, The Cut published an investigation into sexual harassment at WNYC, in which Mills features prominently.) Yesterday, Radiolab, a WNYC program, issued a statement in response to the renewed discussion around Mills: “We can’t change the past, but we can promise you that we are all holding this show, and each other, accountable for making sure that no person has to experience anything like that again.” The Times has not given a recent statement about Mills.
  • And Josh Hawley, the senator from Missouri who led the doomed effort against certifying the Electoral College votes—and remained defiant when the Senate finally resumed its business—has lost a book deal. His publisher, Simon & Schuster, canceled its plans for what would have been called The Tyranny of Big Tech. Hawley denounced Simon & Schuster as “Orwellian” and vowed to sue. Meanwhile, the editorial boards of Hawley’s hometown newspapers, the Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, both called for his resignation.

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Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR and a reporter and writer based in New York.