Revolt at U.S. Capitol took news networks by surprise Wednesday


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As protests grow outside the Capitol, the Senate Majority Leader issues a stark warning to colleagues.

USA TODAY

News networks covering the formal certification of the next president of the United States Wednesday found themselves carrying live pictures of a violent revolt by supporters of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol.

The shocking turn of events seemed to overtake news networks that had planned for protests, but not a breach of the building that holds the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. 

“In my 60 years covering national politics, I’ve never seen anything like it. And frankly I hope I never do again. It’s pretty disturbing,” Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace said.

“It is an absolutely disgraceful moment in American history,” said CNN anchor Jake Tapper, as video showed police and protesters fighting at a barricade and rioters entering the Capitol through a broken window. 

More reaction: ‘This is domestic terrorism’: Meghan McCain, Cardi B and more react to Capitol riot

Capitol police guard a barricaded door as protesters try to break into the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP)

He laid blame on Trump, some of his supporters in Congress and Fox News titan Rupert Murdoch for stirring up the president’s supporters to take such action.

As most of the cable news networks covered the riots with astonishment and condemnation, hosts on Newsmax, a recent Trump favorite because of its fawning coverage, defended the president and suggested without evidence that anti-fascist (or Antifa) demonstrators might be responsible for the violence. 

Anchors on Fox News, a onetime Trump favorite that now earns his criticism, blasted the violence and blamed the president for his inadequate response, but the network also featured interviews with Trump supporters who repeated baseless claims that Democrats had stolen the presidential election and Sarah Palin, who suggested “Antifa folks” instigated Wednesday’s riot.

The tone turned darker on Fox News when Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s primetime opinion hosts, sought to stir fear and anger in those who believe the presidential election was stolen by saying Wednesday’s events would be used to strip people of rights. 

“What happened today will be used by the people taking power to justify stripping you of the rights you were born with as an American: your right to speak without being censored, your right to assemble, to not be spied upon, to make a living, to defend your family, most critically,” he said. “We got to this sad, chaotic place for a reason. It is not your fault. It is their fault.”

Tracking the rioters 

As anchors expressed amazement when the breach of the Capitol was just sinking, jaw-dropping pictures showed law-enforcement officers with guns drawn to keep protesters off the floor of the House of Representatives; protesters fighting police inside the building; and a bleeding woman on a stretcher being rolled away outside. 

“Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh,” MSNBC anchor Katy Tur said. “Guys, we’ve got to interrupt. On the right-hand side of the screen, paramedics are bringing out a stretcher. It looked like a woman very gravely injured, covered in blood.”

Tur asked where Trump was, saying he should call on his supporters to stop rioting. After Trump tweeted a request to his supporters to stay peaceful and support law enforcement, Fox News’ Bret Baier said that wasn’t enough.

“One tweet from the president about the safety of the Capitol Police I don’t think is going to cut it,” he said. “After a campaign in which he said he was the law-and-order candidate, this is anything but. And the constitutional process has been thwarted. There are people acting in ways that put (people) in danger inside the Capitol.”

As events unfolded, it took time for reporters to gauge the extent of the incursion. MSNBC’s Garrett Haake asked to be excused from the conversation so he could head down a Capitol tunnel to determine the extent of the break-in. Newsmax reporter Michael Carter detailed events outside on the Capitol steps. U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., called in to Fox News’ Dana Perino to report on House members being evacuated. “This is unacceptable and a sad day for the country,” he said.

Outside the Capitol, rioters destroyed cameras and other media equipment as they yelled, “CNN sucks,” a favored chant of Trump supporters who constantly demonizes the “lamestream media.” The destroyed equipment is owned by The Associated Press, USA TODAY’s Christal Hayes said in a tweet.

Anchors frequently cited how scenes at the Capitol seemed like those usually seen in developing countries, and wondered why the police were seemingly unequipped to respond to violence during planned protest. Some speculated – and asked officials – whether Black Lives Matter protesters would have been treated more harshly by law enforcement.

However, Fox News primetime host Laura Ingraham recalled summer protests focusing on Black Lives Matter differently, claiming that many criticizing Wednesday’s violence were “markedly silent” when those earlier protesters engaged in “widespread violence” and “attempt(ed) to breach the fence outside the White House” in June.

Ingraham also tried to draw a distinction between nonviolent MAGA supporters she was with earlier in the day and rioters at the Capitol. They “are extremely upset they are being lumped in with individuals who would break windows or who would in any way seem and sound like they were trying to violently threaten members of Congress.”  

Conservative radio host Mark Levin echoed Ingraham’s point in a series of tweets, saying “the violent must be punished” but “the media must be careful not to paint everyone with the same broad brush.”

Newsmax, which is trying to position itself to the right of Fox, went a step further, as hosts Greg Kelly and Sean Spicer, a former Trump aide, tried to shift blame for the violence away from Trump supporters. With no evidence, they too suggested the involvement of Antifa.

“I have serious questions about who these people are. This is not the Trump crowd that you know, that I know,” Kelly said of the rioters pictured on a split screen. “We see serious indications that Antifa and outside infiltrators could be involved in all of this. 

Spicer cited “uncorroborated reports” that Antifa members were being arrested. “If Antifa was there, we need to root it out and to make sure that that’s called out because it shouldn’t be blamed on groups that weren’t responsible,” he said.

As it became clear that rioters had interrupted the vote certification, Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum called the rioting “a huge victory for these protesters. They have disrupted the system in an enormous way.” 

Biden, Trump address the country 

As Trump remained out of sight, Biden took on the role usually assumed by a president in troubled times, calling for an end to the “assault on the citadel of liberty, the Capitol itself, an assault on the people’s representatives.”

“This is not dissent. It’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition and it must end now. I call on this mob to pull back and allow the work of democracy to go forward,” he said, while urging the absent Trump to speak up.

Fox News commentator Juan Williams noted Biden’s authoritative position.

“What we just saw was President-elect Biden trying to assert some sense of leadership, saying that’s not who we are as American people,” he said. “The point of his message really is to President Trump. A president’s words matter and they can inspire, but they can also incite.”

Shortly thereafter, Trump delivered a taped message that emphasized his claims of election fraud and called the rioters “very special,” leading CNN anchor Anderson Cooper to call the response “shameful.”

Chaos follows peaceful protests

The day in Washington started peacefully, if divided, as Trump delivered a speech to supporters, stoking them with his baseless claim of a stolen election and egging on their march to the Capitol, as members of Congress and Vice President Pence gathered there for the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election as president, even as some Republicans planned to challenge the process. 

The country’s stark media divide was on display even earlier when cable-news networks had to choose between Trump and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will become the new Senate Majority Leader now that Democrats have won two Senate runoff contest in Georgia. 

Fox and Newsmax chose Trump; CNN and MSNBC went with Schumer. The split illustrated the large gap in the information viewers receive from the different networks. As Schumer spoke, Fox and Newsmax cameras were trained elsewhere, on an empty lectern, awaiting Trump’s appearance. Both conservative networks carried Trump’s hour-plus speech as CNN and MSNBC talked about the Georgia election and the expected electoral-vote challenge in Congress. 

When the formal certification started, all the networks focused on happenings inside the House and Senate, but Fox had a split screen with one camera focused on protesters leaving Trump’s speech and amassing at the Capitol, putting it in position to cover the shift in events. 

As the crowd grew, the other cable-news networks eventually shifted focus outside, too, with news of rioters breaching barricades giving way to a smattering reports that some had broken into the building. As that was confirmed, Congress shut down and suddenly a blizzard of videos and still pictures flooded TV and other screens, showing the violence inside the coup attempt at the Capitol. The major broadcast networks ditched regular programming and began wall-to-wall coverage by 2 p.m. EST; ABC and NBC pre-empted their primetime lineups for Eastern time zone viewers.

On Newsmax, a tweeted video clip, playing repeatedly on a loop, showed an ugly altercation between police and rioters wearing red baseball caps. The chyron below said: “President Trump Tweets ‘Stay Peaceful.'”

Contributing: Michelle Maltais

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