The Media Today

Covering the insurrection, one month on

February 8, 2021

It’s Impeachment Week II. (Or, as MSNBC’s Hayes Brown asked yesterday, “maybe Impeachment II Week? Or Impeachment Week II Pt. 1? We’ve done this a lot in the last year, not really sure on the branding at this point.”) A year and four days after his first impeachment ended in acquittal, and a month and three days after he incited the insurrection that led to his second, Donald Trump will go on trial in the Senate tomorrow; the timetable for the trial has yet to be finalized, but it’s expected to go on for at least a week, with a break for the Jewish Sabbath, as requested by one of Trump’s lawyers, in the middle. The House impeached Trump just one week after the insurrection, but Senate leaders agreed to postpone the trial to give President Biden time to push his appointments and agenda, and Trump time to organize a defense. Late last month, reporters and pundits debated what the delay might mean for the chances of a conviction: on the one hand, time might soothe the shock of the insurrection and grant senior Republicans room to equivocate; on the other, who knew what crazy new information might come out in the interim? In the end, both things were true: journalists continued to unearth damning stories about Trump’s conduct, and Republicans muddied the waters anyway.

Since January 6, major news organizations have raced to fill in the details of what happened, publishing a flurry of investigations, reconstructions, and biographies of the insurrectionists, digging up their military records, their voting records, and more. The New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson released shocking new footage that he filmed inside the Capitol; ProPublica archived and shared hundreds of videos that the insurrectionists had taken themselves and uploaded to Parler, before that site went offline. Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson, of the New York Times, obtained smartphone location data that allowed them to compile and share “a God-view vantage” proving “a clear link between those who’d listened to the president and his allies and then marched on the building”—though they warned that the collection of such data also proves the “looming threat to our liberties posed by a surveillance economy that monetizes the movements of the righteous and the wicked alike.” While Warzel and Thompson probed the tension between accountability and privacy, Andrew Marantz, of The New Yorker, probed the tension between the newsgathering activities of an insurrection participant and, well, his participation. Such reporting has not been limited to the day of the insurrection itself—we’ve also learned much more about Trump’s longer-term election-theft plotting, including via a detailed series of stories by Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu, of Axios. Last month, the Times’ Katie Benner reported that Trump considered firing his acting attorney general and replacing him with a sycophant; last week, the Times’ Matthew Rosenberg reported that Trump considered naming Michael Flynn—who advocated a military-enforced election rerun—as his chief of staff or FBI director. The Washington Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa and Michelle Ye Hee Lee just calculated that Trump’s election lies cost taxpayers $519 million. And counting.

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The list goes on. As I wrote in the aftermath of the insurrection, accountability requires that the media preserve and center its visceral, shocking memory; since then, the above stories and many others have contributed to that collective memorialization. Still, there’s more that we need to do, and errors that we need to account for. Last week, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, and Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago who has studied America’s white power movement, discussed Pope’s observation that much of the coverage is still channeling a muddy ambiguity about the deeper societal causes of, and actors behind, the insurrection—a result, Belew noted, of the white power movement’s long-term efforts to obscure itself, and a haziness about the linkages between, and leaderlessness of, the constellation of groups involved.

The picture is mixed, too, when it comes to accountability for Trump’s enablers in Congress. A handful of the lawmakers who voted, even after the insurrection, to challenge the election results—senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, in particular—face continued, tough scrutiny across the reality-based press, and there have been some efforts to broaden the lens: WITF, a radio station in Pennsylvania, for instance, pledged, going forward, to incorporate accountability into its shorthand, day-to-day descriptors of local lawmakers who challenged the results. (For example: “Sen. (name), who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question, today introduced a bill…”) Other complicit lawmakers, however, have dodged tough questions—last week, Tommy Tuberville, the football coach turned election-challenging Alabama senator, said that he could not comment on the conduct of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon-friendly House Republican, because “the weather’s been a little rough” and he hadn’t kept up with the news—and news outlets have not always asked them insistently enough. Top Republicans who did not vote to challenge the results, but did lie or remain silent while Trump’s election conspiracies gained momentum, have too often gone unchallenged. A bevy of such senators went on the Sunday shows yesterday. Their complicity did not come up.

Coverage projecting forward from the insurrection has also sometimes missed the mark. Major outlets’ recent obsession with Greene—who has made for a dominant story line since CNN and Media Matters for America dug up her past comments supporting violence against top Democrats, harassing a school-shooting survivor, and suggesting that a space laser may have sparked a wildfire in California—is a case in point. At its best, this coverage has used the character of Greene as a prism for the radicalization of the Republican base and the complicity of the party’s leadership. Too often, though, it has done the opposite—collapsing into DC-centric tropes (the “battle for the soul of the Republican Party”; Greene as partisan “mischief maker”) while stating, or at least implying, that Greene is a singular outlier and that appalled GOP leaders in the House would take a stand against her. (This, predictably, did not happen, though a handful of Republican lawmakers did join Democrats in voting to kick Greene off two House committees.) Greene is an important figure, and her worldview and its adjacency to QAnon are frightening—but the press didn’t just find out about it, and most of her conspiracies have precedents, or at least analogues, in the oeuvres of Trump and others. (Trump did not, as far as we know, pin California’s fires on a space laser, though he did blame the state for not “cleaning your floors,” and has more broadly referred to climate change as a hoax.)

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Even clear-eyed coverage of Greene can sometimes feel too easy—a shiny-object stand-in for the harder work of understanding the white supremacism and other forms of extremism that gave us Trump, his election lies, and, eventually, the insurrection. As Belew told Pope last week, “It would be a mistake to overly focus on any one person when we’re thinking about this problem. And I think this is true about President Trump, too.” We should mine that broader context this week, as the news cycle pivots back from Trump’s rabid political offspring to Trump the man. Revivifying our collective memory of the insurrection that led to Trump’s trial should only be the start.

Below, more on Trump and radicalization:

  • Greene room: In the past week, various media-watchers have expressed concern that, in affording Greene outsize, albeit highly critical, attention, the reality-based press is helping her to amplify her message and personal brand. “What I fear is we’ve created a superstar here,” Sophia A. Nelson, of theGrio, said on CNN last week. “Now someone who was kind of a wacky Georgia congresswoman is known throughout the country.” On Friday, Elahe Izadi, of the Post, explored the conundrum this can pose. “Is the answer to that ‘Well, we just won’t cover these stories’?” Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC executive, asked. “For journalists to start to calculate the further consequences of doing that job and somehow calculate what the end result should be is not really our role.”
  • “The Cassandra of the internet age”: Warzel, of the Times, spoke with Michael Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist who, all the way back in the eighties, predicted “the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, the rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing, personal essay, fandoms and online influencer culture—along with the near destruction of our ability to focus,” and helped popularize the concept of the “attention economy.” The insurrection, Goldhaber told Warzel, “felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process.”
  • “Inside the maga bubble”: Politico’s Tina Nguyen spent an entire day watching One America News Network, a Trump-sycophancy channel, and wrote about the experience: “Without Trump providing feedback or free advertising in real time, OAN was a strange, empty temple to maga culture, with its acolytes and prophets filling in the gaps of his silence with their fantasies—often illogical, frequently venomous and largely a collection of memes—of what they thought their leader would want them to say. And they missed him. Boy, did they miss him.” (ICYMI, CJR’s Andrew McCormick profiled OAN last year.)

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.