The media and social networks struggle to frame events as Trump supporters storm the Capitol

Less than an hour after Congress started ratifying the electoral college votes that gave Joe Biden a win in the presidential election, hundreds of camouflage-wearing Trump supporters — egged on by the president’s claims that the election was stolen from him — stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday and forced their way inside. As members of Congress left the Senate and House chambers, taking the electoral college votes with them, rioters in paramilitary gear and wearing QAnon symbols filled the room, taking photos of themselves standing on the dais by the Speaker’s chair, and sitting in her office with their feet on her desk. Amid the melee, a woman was shot and later died of her injuries. According to CNN, it was the first time the Capitol building had been breached since the War of 1812. DC police reported there were about 50 arrests (two of which appeared to be journalists covering the protesters) and at least two explosive devices were found. Fighting between police and rioters continued near the Capitol through the night, but early Thursday morning Congress ratified the electoral college voting. Donald Trump released a statement saying even though he disagreed with the outcome, there would be an orderly transition on January 20th. 

As the event played out across cable news, anchors and commentators struggled to come up with what to call the incident, before landing on terms like ‘sedition’ and ‘insurrection’. “We are watching an attempted sedition,” Jake Tapper said on CNN during the occupation of the Capitol. “We are watching an attempt at a bloodless coup in the United States.” Social networks were filled with photos and video footage of the breach of the Capitol and its occupation by rioters. One video posted on TikTok appeared to show police encouraging demonstrators to enter the Capitol building, and other videos posted to TikTok appeared to show members of the police taking friendly photos with those who illegally entered the building. Fox News contributor Ted Williams said, “I’m very troubled by this, but this has to be laid directly to the foot of the president of the United States. He incited this. He encouraged this.”

The Times described “a scene of chaos and confusion seldom witnessed in the history of the capital,” with hundreds of protesters barreling past fence barricades. Others used more stark language, and compared the response to events in the Capitol with other protests such as those following the death of George Floyd. “This is a coup attempt,” Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger said on Twitter. Washington Post reporter Aaron Davis said the Defense Department initially refused a request from DC officials to deploy the National Guard, but later relented (the Times said this was authorized by vice president Pence, not by Trump). “Amazing how the national guard gets deployed with the quickness in anticipation of protests when police kill someone but when Trump holds his fascist coup rally the national guard is nowhere in sight,” said Bree Newsome Bass. David Corn of Mother Jones wrote that Trump “is now a terrorist leader.”

“I reported from Ferguson. The difference in the aggression level of the police there against unarmed protesters vs what we’re seeing against white people attempting a coup in the capital is effing astounding,” said New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb. Nick Kristof of the Times wrote: “Wednesday was a horrifying and shameful moment in American history. I’ve covered attempted coups in many countries around the world, and now I’m finally covering one in the United States.” Conservative pundit David Frum wrote in The Atlantic that Republicans should “remove Trump tonight.” The Washington Post editorial board said the president “is unfit to remain in office” and must be removed.

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Trump, who repeatedly urged his supporters during a rally Wednesday to march to the Capitol to demand that Congress overturn the election, tweeted a call to “stay peaceful” after the occupation was well under way. Later, he released a video statement in which he said that the election “was stolen from us, and the other side knows it” and that it was “a fraudulent election, so bad, so evil” but urged demonstrators — of whom he said “we love you, you’re special” — to go home. Retweeting was disabled on the tweet containing the video, and when clicked on, a message popped up that said “We try to prevent a tweet like this that otherwise breaks the Twitter Rules from reaching more people, so we have disabled most of the ways to engage with it.” Another warning label on a Trump tweet said “this claim of election fraud is disputed, and this tweet can’t be replied to, retweeted or liked due to a risk of violence.”

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Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan said Wednesday afternoon that “Trump’s silence on social media, as a far-right mob entered the Capitol, should be reason enough for @Twitter and @Facebook to finally shut him down. The final two weeks might be the most dangerous of this presidency.” Activist Deray said that “today would be a great day for Twitter to ban Trump.” Twitter’s official security account later said: “In regard to the ongoing situation in Washington, D.C., we are working proactively to protect the health of the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules.” Venture capital investor Chris Sacca posted a personal message to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, saying “You’ve got blood on your hands, @jack and Zuck. For four years you’ve rationalized this terror. Inciting violent treason is not a free speech exercise. If you work at those companies, it’s on you too. Shut it down.”

Alex Stamos, former head of security for Facebook, said Wednesday that “there have been good arguments for private companies to not silence elected officials, but all those arguments are predicated on the protection of constitutional governance. Twitter and Facebook have to cut him off. There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won’t do it.” Late Wednesday afternoon, the VP of integrity at Facebook, said: “This is an emergency situation and we are taking appropriate emergency measures, including removing President Trump’s video. We removed it because on balance we believe it contributes to rather than diminishes the risk of ongoing violence.” On Wednesday evening, Twitter said that “as a result of the unprecedented and ongoing violent situation in Washington, D.C., we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump Tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy.” It said that the president’s account would be locked for 12 hours following the removal of the tweets. Facebook also said late Wednesday that Trump’s page would be blocked from posting for 24 hours.

Here’s more on the coverage of Wednesday’s seismic events:

  • Blood on his hands: The Kansas City Star editorial board wrote that Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, “has blood on his hands”. “This, Sen. Hawley, is what law-breaking and destruction look like. This is what mobs do. This is not a protest, but a riot.”
  • Believable: Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway, said “Folks – this is not unbelievable. This is the logical culmination of events.” NBC presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss said that the president “has incited this danger of violence at the Capitol. This is the Frankenstein monster that the Vice President and Republican leaders have abetted and cosseted for four brutal years. They will have to answer to history,” Steve Inskeep of NPR said: “9/11 was a more violent attack than this. But today’s assault on democracy does direct violence to American ideals. It is an attack on a free and fair election. An attack on the rule of law. And it is an attack from within.”
  • Poisonous buffoonery: Kevin Williamson writes in The National Review that the word coup is overused, but “that is what this is: an attempted coup d’état under color of law.” He argues it would be appropriate to impeach Trump a second time and remove him from office before his term ends. “No one who has participated in this poisonous buffoonery should ever hold office again,” he says. “There was a time when there was a plausible if sometimes self-serving rationale for working for the Trump administration [but] there simply is no defending what it is up to.”
  • Consequences: Gillian Brockell writes in the Washington Post about fourteen senators who were expelled from Congress for refusing to accept the election of President Abraham Lincoln, who won despite not being on the ballot in ten Southern states and earning less than forty percent of the popular vote. A resolution expelled the senators on the grounds they were “engaged in [a] conspiracy for the destruction of the Union.”
  • Terminology: Daily Beast reporter Maxwell Tani said: “CBS News standards told staff “protestors, violent protestors, a violent mob, pro-Trump protestors” were all fine to use. NBC News said the crowd could be referred to as a mob or rioters, but cautioned staff against referring to the act as a coup or attempted coup.” Ben Smith of the Times said that Post editor Marty Baron told staff to call those storming the Capitol a “mob” rather than “protesters.” NPR told its reporters that “we won’t be calling the people who stormed the Capitol ‘protestors’ – they are ‘pro-Trump extremists’ and what they are doing is ‘insurrection’.”
  • Media enabled: Emily Bell of the Tow Center at Columbia said it was a “media-enabled disaster” and that “The Murdochs and Fox News are culpable. The Silicon Valley execs who courted this division on their platforms are culpable. Network executives and editors who lacked the ability to treat the threat seriously are culpable.” Her fellow Columbia professor Bill Grueskin agreed, saying: “You own this, GOP. WSJ edit page. Fox News. Rupert and Lachlan. This is the logical conclusion of everything you have tolerated, encouraged and enabled for 5 years.”
  • Always headed here: The pro-Trump movement was always headed towards something like the occupation of Congress, Charlie Warzel writes in the Times. “For years, professional grifters, trolls, true believers and political opportunists have sowed conspiratorial lies [and] we are now witnessing the reaping. For close observers of the pro-Trump and far-right extremist movements, this dark moment has felt almost inevitable. You can draw a straight line from the message-board fever swamps to Mr. Trump’s rallies to Charlottesville to “Stand back and stand by” to this. It is a desperate attempt to overthrow the democratic process. It is also the crash of a universe of toxic conspiracies against the rocks of human reality.”

 

Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s public editor for CNN Ariana Pekary: “Where are the law enforcement voices?” Yes, the politics are important and they would be remiss to ignore the root causes of today’s crisis. But we could use a more measured and technical approach to this tinderbox. It would be nice to know why the Capitol Police failed so spectacularly this afternoon. How did the Trump supporters end up in an armed standoff? Why is it taking so long to respond? Where is Mayor Muriel Bowser? If this happened in any other country, they’d call on one of a myriad of law enforcement experts. The choice to rely on political talking heads is not helpful.”
  • Poynter writes about Tallahassee Democrat reporter CD Davidson-Hiers, who became a one-woman help desk for seniors trying to get the COVID-19 vaccine. She has been covering the rollout of the vaccine in her area, and asked readers to contact her if they had any questions. The next day she awoke to more than 75 text messages from residents who wanted her help in figuring out the process. “To have people call me directly now with questions, real questions, this feels like why I got into this profession,” she said. “It is the most rewarding that it’s felt in nine months.”
  • Stephen Adler announced that he will retire as editor-in-chief of Reuters in April, after ten years at the head of the global media network. He joined Thomson Reuters in 2010 as senior vice president and editorial director of the company’s professional division and was named editor-in-chief the following year. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek and a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal. He was a top editor of The American Lawyer from 1983 to 1988 and began his career as a reporter at local newspapers in Florida. Adler is chairman of CJR’s board of overseers, chairman of the board of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
  • Wyndham Destinations, which owns a chain of resorts, is acquiring Travel + Leisure magazine from owner Meredith Corp. for $100 million, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, as part of a deal that would expand Wyndham’s business beyond its core vacation-ownership operations. In addition to the magazine, Travel + Leisure operates membership-based travel services. Wyndham runs 230 timeshare resorts, with more than four million members across its business lines. The combined company would have 18 resort, travel-club and lifestyle-travel brands.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.