By:
January 7, 2021

It was supposed to be a quiet afternoon in January.

Typically, on such a day, Americans at home have their televisions on, tuning in to shows such as “Judge Judy” and “The View” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”

Instead, we saw horrific images like many have never seen before in this country.

Call them what you will — protesters, rioters, a mob, supporters of a coup — storming into the Capitol, one of the most hallowed halls of American democracy.

“We are watching a bloodless coup in the United States.” That’s what CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted out.

“We are witnessing something beyond our comprehension,” Fox News’ Martha MacCallum said. “The images are so stark and so disturbing.”

NBC News’ Lester Holt said, “There have been some elements of a coup attempt.”

CNN called it an “insurrection.”

All the major networks broke into regular programming. As you flipped from one station to another — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS — the same grim lines were repeated over and over again.

“We’ve never seen anything like this.”

“This looks like scenes from another country.”

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

These were just some of the things said across all networks as the incredible scenes played out in front of our disbelieving eyes.

In real time, networks did exemplary work, not only covering these stunning visuals, but quickly tracking down House members and senators for their thoughts.

The networks were already on hand as Congress had just begun the process of certifying the Electoral College results. The process is normally a rubber-stamp, ho-hum procedure, but objections by some GOP lawmakers were expected to draw out the process even if it was not going to change the outcome.

Earlier in the day, Trump spoke at an outdoor rally to those who had gathered in Washington to protest the certification of the Electoral College. He encouraged them to march to the Capitol.

And that’s when the country, as we have always known it, spiraled out of control.

“It is an embarrassing, dangerous, frightening spectacle that you’re witnessing,” Tapper said.

On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “We are not having a peaceful transition of power.”

For weeks, as Trump ratcheted up the rhetoric of a rigged election and how his supporters needed to fight to make sure the election, in his words, wasn’t stolen, there were fears that there could be violence before he left office. Those fears grew over the past few days as Trump supporters headed to Washington to protest the results of Joe Biden’s presidential victory in November.

But few expected it would actually result in people breaking into the Capitol.

NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Kasie Hunt said, “I think we need to just step back and take a second here to underscore how rare, unusual and troubling what is going on here is. This is not something that has happened very frequently. It’s not unprecedented that there has been a breach of the House chamber, but it was many, many years ago.”

How unusual was it? Fox News congressional correspondent Chad Pergram said, “I want to be very clear about something. This is the most significant breach of an American government institution since the Battle of Bladensburg — Aug. 24th, 1814, when the British came and burned the Capitol and also burned the White House. We have never had an instance of an incursion inside the U.S. Capitol building to this degree since that time. Let’s be clear, the mob upended American democracy today as they try to count the Electoral College. You have people taking over the House chamber, the Senate chamber, gunshots on Capitol Hill, an utter breakdown of the constitutional process, bedlam.”

What was striking was how all networks, including even Trump-friendly Fox News, quickly condemned Trump, many of the GOP lawmakers and anyone who has supported Trump over the course of his presidency for stoking the crowd to do the things they did on Wednesday.

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.”

At 4:17 p.m., Trump released a taped speech in which he started off repeating claims of a stolen election before urging his supporters to “go home in peace.”

But on CNN, Abby Phillip said, “That video was a disgrace. The idea that today, on the day that Congress intends to count the electoral votes for Joe Biden, who will be the next president of the United States, Donald Trump still refuses to say that he lost a democratically held election in the United States of America is a profound shame. And it makes us a mockery in the world.”

CNN commentator David Axelrod said Trump has essentially resigned as president since the election so he could work on his “project” of trying to convince everyone that he didn’t really lose the election. And in his absence, Joe Biden has stepped up, as he showed in a live speech condemning Wednesday’s events.

As images of Trump supporters continued to flash on our screens, CNN’s Van Jones said this: “We don’t know what we’re looking at yet. Is this the end of something? Or the beginning of something? Is the death throes of something ugly in our country — desperate, about to go away? And then the vision that Biden talked about going to rise up? Or are these birth pains of a worse disorder? That’s where we are right now.”

Springing into action

CNN’s Brian Stelter reported, “When pro-Trump rioters breached the Capitol building on Wednesday, the TV cameras in the House and Senate chambers were abruptly turned off. Thankfully there were quick-thinking reporters and photographers inside the Capitol who showed the world what happened next.”

To second Stelter’s thoughts, Wednesday was a remarkable day for journalists. Yes, many were already on the scene to cover the day’s events, including the Trump rally and the electoral college certification story. And while we look back and should not have been surprised that Trump worked the crowd into an out-of-control frenzy, most reporters likely could not have anticipated what ultimately happened.

And yet they did sensational work that was not only quick-thinking, but professional, measured and determined. And brave, considering many of those in the mob consider the media to be “the enemy of the people.”

Washington Post editorial calls for Trump’s removal

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, file)

In a stunning editorial published Wednesday night, The Washington Post editorial board called for Donald Trump to be removed as president.

The board wrote, “President Trump’s refusal to accept his election defeat and his relentless incitement of his supporters led Wednesday to the unthinkable: an assault on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob that overwhelmed police and drove Congress from its chambers as it was debating the counting of electoral votes. Responsibility for this act of sedition lies squarely with the president, who has shown that his continued tenure in office poses a grave threat to U.S. democracy. He should be removed.”

The editorial board also criticized what it called Trump’s “two mild tweets” to tell the mob to disperse.

The editorial board wrote, “The president is unfit to remain in office for the next 14 days.” It asked Vice President Mike Pence to gather the cabinet and invoke the 25th Amendment, and declare that Trump is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Pence, the board writes, should be president until Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

“Failing that,” the board writes, “senior Republicans must restrain the president.”

The editorial closes by saying, “Mr. Biden is right. Rules, norms, laws, even the Constitution itself are worth something only if people believe in them. Americans put on their seat belts, follow traffic laws, pay taxes and vote because of faith in a system — and that faith makes it work. The highest voice in the land incited people to break that faith, not just in tweets, but by inciting them to action. Mr. Trump is a menace, and as long as he remains in the White House, the country will be in danger.”

CBS’s breaking news

CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan reported Wednesday night on the air that cabinet members were discussing among themselves about whether or not to move forward with formal proceedings to invoke the 25th Amendment that would remove Trump from office.

Brennan said, “My sources are telling me it has not been formally presented to the vice president. This is not about to happen. It is, however, being discussed right now. The very fact that the highest levels of the U.S. government and cabinet members are discussing this is quite newsworthy, quite notable, and it underscores the moment that we are at.”

CNN’s Jim Acosta later reported the same news.

O’Donnell’s strong remarks

Norah O’Donnell, anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” showed anger and raw emotion that I’ve never seen her show before.

For example, check out these comments from O’Donnell: “The president is also saying ‘go home.’ You know, this really speaks to how detached he is from reality, and the reason is because the president gets to travel by private plane and, for four years, has been able to travel by helicopter. You know, I had people tell me, all these people have traveled in on commercial air flights. They’re booked in hotel rooms tonight in the District of Columbia, they’re not people of extreme wealth. This is their Disneyland, a big event of the year, when people are strapped for cash in an economic time, they’ve made the decision to spend the money and make this their moment. So just to say ‘go home’ doesn’t work that way. They’re in hotels. Going to stay here in the District of Columbia and continue the rage that has been fueled within them by rhetoric for months, and it’s something that the president has stoked for months, and he continues in this message by once again noting about a fraudulent election.”

Strong commentary

On Fox News, Chris Wallace showed his astonishment for what we witnessed on Wednesday.

He said, “What we’re seeing today, people need to understand how utterly unprecedented it is. … We’ve heard the sitting president of the United States refuse to concede and say that he will never accept the results of an election. He makes all of these statements about election fraud and then says, ‘Well, there’s all this evidence.’ You don’t have to listen to me. Listen to the federal judges, the state judges, federal judges appointed by Donald Trump, the six-vote conservative majority on the Supreme Court, his own attorney general, his one head of cybersecurity of his own administration. They have all said that there is not the kind of vote fraud in this election that would, in any way, challenge the results in a single state let alone overall. The president is making up stories, but the people who have heard the evidence, all of them, have rejected it. You talk about what’s at stake today. What’s at stake is whether a bunch of insiders in Congress can overturn the will of the American people — 150 million of them — when they went to vote.”

Chilling words

These were the chilling comments made by Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Susan Wild during an interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell: “A very emotional and difficult day. It’s possibly the most frightening thing I’ve ever gone through in my lifetime. It’s a day that will last in our memories for a very long time. And I’m deeply afraid for what it means for the future of our democracy.”

O’Donnell later said, “We are witnessing history, and what can only be described as a national disgrace.”

Incredible to write, incredible to read

President Donald Trump at a rally Wednesday in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox tweeted, “The most astonishing four paragraphs I’ve ever written.”

It is among the most astonishing four paragraphs I’ve ever read:

As President Trump told a sprawling crowd outside the White House that they should never accept defeat, hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in what amounted to an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost. In the chaos, one woman was shot and killed by Capitol Police.

The violent scene — much of it incited by the president’s incendiary language — was like none other in modern American history, bringing to a sudden halt the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

With poles bearing blue Trump flags, the mob bashed through Capitol doors and windows, forcing their way past police officers unprepared for the onslaught. Lawmakers were evacuated shortly before an armed standoff at the House doors. The woman who was shot by a police officer was rushed to an ambulance, police said, and later died. Cannisters of tear gas were fired across the rotunda’s white marble floor, and on the steps outside the building, rioters flew Confederate flags.

“USA!” chanted the would-be saboteurs of a 244-year-old democracy.

More astonishing remarks

Stop and really think about these words from ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, who described Wednesday as “this extraordinary day across the country. The U.S. Capitol under siege from rioters incited by President Trump.”

ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir said, “The horror and chaos and the sadness over what has played out in our nation’s capital. Images not seen in modern American history.”

Speaking of ‘World News Tonight’

Superb work in the opening moments of ABC’s “World News Tonight.” The newscast showed a montage of still photos that dramatically told the story better than moving pictures might have. It showed a man carrying a Confederate flag through the Capitol halls. It showed another man sitting with his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk. And yet another standing at the podium on the Senate floor.

When is enough enough?

At 6:01 p.m. Eastern Wednesday, Trump sent out this tweet:

“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

Twitter immediately put a disclaimer on it, saying the election claim of fraud is disputed. But Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi asked a question that many of us have been asking for months while Trump keeps putting out these baseless tweets time and time and time again:

“At what point does Twitter pull the plug?”

The wait wasn’t long. Twitter pulled that tweet Wednesday evening. And that meant Trump’s Twitter account was locked for 12 hours. Facebook and Instagram followed with their own bans.

But his damage was done long before Wednesday.

When you lose Brit …

If you read or heard his comments in the past, you know Brit Hume, the Fox News senior political analyst, has been a Trump cheerleader for quite some time now. But during Fox News’ coverage on Wednesday, Hume said the rank-and-file Republicans “will almost certainly have deserted him. If the election was held tonight he’d lose by far more. … I don’t think they’ll be around for any effort to elect Trump again four years from now.”

Sen. Josh Hawley blasted by home-state paper

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)

In a damning editorial, The Kansas City Star blasted Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who was one of GOP lawmakers leading the objection of Wednesday’s Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

The Star’s editorial board wrote, “No one other than President Donald Trump himself is more responsible for Wednesday’s coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol.”

The editorial went on to say, “Hawley’s actions in the last week had such impact that he deserves an impressive share of the blame for any blood that’s shed.”

Hawley was the first to say he was going to object to the Electoral College certification.

The Star’s board also took aim at some of its readers by writing, “No doubt plenty of Americans will see even this free-for-all in the temple of democracy as defensible. And those of you who have excused all of the brazen lawlessness of this administration can take a little bit credit for these events, too. They couldn’t have done it without you.”

When the day started

Wednesday’s congressional certification of the Electoral College is typically a lot of pomp and circumstance. But, in introducing MSNBC’s coverage, Chuck Todd said, “There’s a little pomp and a lot of weirdness.”

Later, when Todd talked to MSNBC political commentator and former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill about just how perfunctory the Electoral College certification is, McCaskill said, “It was so perfunctory that I don’t even remember it. I mean, I don’t remember doing this. I just think a few people maybe went down that had to because it was ministerial. It was not a moment. … I don’t ever remember this.”

And now, because of Wednesday, it’s a process that we will never forget.

Shameful

At 8 p.m., as Vice President Mike Pence was addressing lawmakers back in the Capitol building, CNN immediately cut to him. So did MSNBC. What did Fox News show? Tucker Carlson’s strange monologue that started off condemning the violence, but saying it was a result of what many believe was an illegitimate election.

As New York Times media writer Michael M. Grynbaum tweeted, “Tucker Carlson called today’s violence ‘wrong’ and said Red & Blue America are ‘inseparably intertwined.’ But he never cited Trump by name and concluded by explicitly exonerating his viewers for the riot: “It is not your fault. It is their fault.”

Just shameful of Carlson. And shameful of Fox News.

Also shameful? The primetime trio of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham floated unfounded accusations that there were antifa sympathizers sprinkled in the MAGA crowd that stormed the Capitol.

Other media thoughts and stories from Wednesday’s events

Thursday’s Washington Post front page. (Courtesy: The Washington Post)

  • New York Times’ cybersecurity reporter Sheera Frenkel with “The Storming of Capitol Hill was organized on social media.” A similar story: BuzzFeed News’ Jane Lytvynenko and Molly Hensley-Clancy with “The Rioters Who Took Over The Capitol Have Been Planning Online In The Open For Weeks.”
  • Good hustle from The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, who reported, “Trump initially rebuffed and resisted requests to mobilize the National Guard, according to a person with knowledge of the vents. It required intervention from White House officials to get it done, according to the person with knowledge of the events.”
  • Kudos to ABC News’ Rachel Scott and her unsettling reporting after seeing the woman who would later die from a gunshot wound being loaded into an ambulance.
  • Disturbing tweet from The Washington Post’s Katie Mettler, showing destroyed television equipment after reporters were chased away by the Trump mob. And here’s video of TV equipment being destroyed.
  • Speaking of the word “mob,” that’s exactly the word used in headlines Wednesday night on the homepages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Times headline was: “Mob Incited by Trump Storms Capitol.” The Post headline: “Pro-Trump Mob Storms Capitol Building.” In fact, New York Times’ media columnist Ben Smith reported that a Post staffer told him that Post editor Marty Baron told his staff to use the word “mob” and not “protestors.”
  • CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan was one of the most compelling reporters on Wednesday. He embedded himself into the crowd of Trump supporters and reported on what they were doing, saying and thinking. O’Sullivan’s mix of reporting and commentary was incredibly insightful. In the end, O’Sullivan believed that Wednesday was largely due in part to a campaign of online misinformation that has been building for four years.
  • ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS all interrupted regular programming Wednesday night in primetime for live news coverage.
  • Check out this Twitter thread from NBC News’ Kasie Hunt as she gave her thoughts on Wednesday’s events.
  • McClatchy’s vice president of news, Kristin Roberts, tweeted out some of the editorials written by editorial boards of some of the papers in the McClatchy chain, condemning what happened Wednesday.

And these final thoughts on Wednesday from NBC News’ Lester Holt:

“So here we are, at the end of an extraordinary and chaotic day in the history of our country — we’ve seen an assault on our democracy like we’ve never seen. The normally routine exercise of certifying, or as in this case counting the votes of a presidential election, turning into a life-threatening attack on one of the pillars of our country: gunfire, a woman dies, others wounded, members of Congress in gas masks, hiding under their desks, saying prayers. The U.S. Capitol occupied and under siege. The questions will linger for a long time. On a very basic level, just how could an angry mob breach what should have been one of the most secure buildings in the world? Why did it take so long for authorities, including President Trump himself, to respond? And what responsibility will the president ultimately bear for what happened today? Tonight, members of Congress are vowing to get back to the process of certifying the election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. Despite what we’ve been through today, our democracy is strong. And there will be a transfer of power, exactly two weeks from today. Right there — at the U.S. Capitol.”

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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  • One of the reporters above said Trump whipped the crowd into a frenzy – That could also be taken as incited the crowd to riot, which I think is an actual crime. Trump gets too much free air time on Twitter as it is, what needs to happen now it for the media to get this canned ham out of the spotlight and off the front pages! Media coverage is the air he needs to grow, like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. We need to cut off that air supply as quickly as possible after 1/20/21.