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Capitol Riots were a Dark Day for American Journalism

Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler – CC BY 2.0

The invasion of the Capitol on 6 January now stands alongside 9/11 as an act of war against American democracy. Unsurprisingly, news coverage of the incursion has come to resemble war propaganda. All facts, true or false, are pointed in the same direction with the aim of demonising the enemy and anybody who minimises its demonic nature.

The three-hour takeover of the Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob is portrayed as a “coup” or an “insurrection” egged on by President Trump. The five who died during the events are seen as evidence of a violent, pre-planned plot to overturn the result of the US presidential election. Film spliced together and shown by prosecutors during the impeachment proceedings gives the impression that what happened resembled a battle scene in Braveheart.

Does it matter what really did occur? Many people feel that anything damaging to Trump and his fascistic followers is all right by them. They may suspect privately that accounts of Trump’s plot against America are exaggerated, but the fabricator of 30,573 falsehoods over the last four years is scarcely in a position to criticise his opponents for departing from the strict truth. They argue that he is an unprecedented threat to American democracy, even as it becomes clear that what actually happened in the Capitol on that day was radically different from the way elements of the media reported it.

But what is reported matters and particularly so when it risks exaggerating violence or deepening fear and a sense of threat. If the US government really was the target of an armed insurrection, then this will be used to justify repression, as it was after 9/11, and not just against right wing conspiracy theorists. By becoming partisan instruments for spreading fake news, the media undermines its own credibility.

A problem with a giant news story like the Capitol invasion is that at first it is over-covered before we know the full facts, and then it is under-covered when those facts begin to emerge. This has been true of US media coverage. But even at the time it seemed to be a very peculiar armed insurrection. Only one shot appears to have been fired and that was by a police officer who killed Trump supporter Ashil Babbitt who was involved in the storming of the Capitol. In a country like the US awash with guns, this absence of gunfire is remarkable.

Five people died during the takeover of the Capitol building and this is the main proof of deadly intent by the rioters. But one of the dead was Babbitt, killed by the police, and three of the others were members of the pro-Trump mob, who died, respectively, from a stroke, a heart attack and from being accidentally crushed by the crowd.

This leaves just one person, Capitol policeman Brian Sicknick, as the sole victim of the Trump supporters who allegedly beat him to death with a fire extinguisher. On 8 January, the New York Times ran two stories about his death, quoting anonymous law officers as describing how pro-Trump rioters had struck him on the head with a fire extinguisher causing “a bloody gash on his head”. He is then reported to have been rushed to hospital, placed on life support but to have died the following day.

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