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A Look At How Different U.S. Media Outlets Covered The Pro-Trump Riot On Capitol Hill


The nation watched yesterday as pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol. And what you saw and your understanding of the events may depend on where you tuned in - one of the broadcast networks, a cable news network or one of the emerging far-right cable channels. Here's a little sample from ABC, CNN, Fox News and Newsmax.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: ...On the Senate floor right now start to move away from their objections, united in condemning...

JAKE TAPPER: We have a name for people who commit violence in the name of various political ideology. We call them terrorists. That's what we call people who commit acts of violence...

TUCKER CARLSON: ...Sad, chaotic day for a reason. It is not your fault. It is their fault.

SEAN SPICER: There was mischief. 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.

CORNISH: For some analysis of how media outlets are covering this extraordinary story, we're joined by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Welcome back, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And our media correspondent, David Folkenflik. Hello.


CORNISH: I want to start with the broadcast networks, where TV news viewers traditionally go for, you know, gravitas. Eric, how did they do?

DEGGANS: Well, I think they seemed a little shell-shocked, as many viewers were, by what was going on. The networks broke into their regular programming - including in prime time - to cover what was going on and deliver, you know, the facts of what had happened.

CORNISH: And David, it sounds like you saw, in their attempts, a scramble just to find the language - right? - to describe what was going on.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I think that you saw them initially talking about protesters because the day started with a protest, right? And then it moved to people who were starting to move on the Capitol. And they were trying to figure out - you know, to anticipate where it would go without being hyperbolic about it. And suddenly, these people became, essentially, a mob that were storming or laying siege or sacking, ultimately, the U.S. Capitol building.

And yet they didn't want to get out ahead of it. So, you know, we - finally, you saw debates play out in newsrooms, including our own. Are they protesters still? Are they insurrectionists? Are they rioters? How do you do this? And I think, ultimately, you saw news organizations not casting aside caution, but casting aside self-inflicted restraints to try to capture what their colleagues on the Hill were seeing with their own ears and eyes.

CORNISH: David, I want to follow up on this thought because you watch cable news closely and specifically Fox, which has had a lot of competition from its right flank. Can you describe what you saw there?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. So on Fox, you would essentially have seen a lot of very sympathetic voices - not surprisingly - to the folks who were part of the demonstration on the Mall that the president was addressing and essentially turned out to be inciting. And then you saw, essentially, kind of deflections in affirmation of what they were doing. Martha MacCallum, a news anchor, seemingly offering a kind of affirmation of the movement towards Capitol Hill.

And ultimately, as they realized what happened and started depicting things as truly a mob and truly sacking the Capitol, there was a deflection of blame. I want to play for you a clip. It's Pete Hegseth. He was on "Fox & Friends" this morning. And he was deflecting where blame should lie for what occurred yesterday on Capitol Hill.


PETE HEGSETH: These are not conspiracy theorists motivated just by lies. That's a bunch of nonsense that people want to tell us. These are people that understand first principles. They love freedom, and they love free markets. And they see exactly what the anti-American left has done to American...

CORNISH: Eric, I want to follow up with you out of that because you've talked about this idea of blame and why it matters in terms of how it's interpreted by cable news networks like this. What are you hearing in this?

DEGGANS: Well, in particular, when you look at more ring-wing oriented news networks like Fox News and One America News Network and Newsmax, they are reflecting back to their audience the world the way they either want to see it or the way that they fear that it might be. And so this question of whether this violence was justified and why it was happening was a big question on a lot of these shows. So you saw people suggest - you saw Sarah Palin on Fox News suggesting that left-wing activist antifa may have been involved in sparking this violence.


SARAH PALIN: And we don't - and a lot of it is the media's fault. But, Martha, keep in mind, we don't know who all were the instigators in this, of these horrible things that happened today. I think a lot of it is the antifa folks. I've been sent pictures...

DEGGANS: And I think this was stoked by coverage that gave prominence and legitimacy to the lies that President Trump has been saying about whether or not he won the election and whether or not the election was stolen from him. And so you see these networks trying to justify it.

On CNN and MSNBC, you saw something very different - where anchors like Jake Tapper were talking about terrorism and Van Jones on CNN and Joy Reid on MSNBC, two African Americans, talking about how the Black Lives Matter protesters were treated very differently when they protested in the nation's capital and wondering why these protesters weren't treated more harshly by police.

FOLKENFLIK: And, Audie - if I might - it strikes me that the distinction to draw in some ways is not between sort of liberal media - MSNBC - versus conservative media - Fox - but what you see on the right and what you see with the rest.

CORNISH: Can you get a little more into that? I mean, what you see with the right or what you see with the far-right?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, degrees on a scale, right? You know, Fox News has provided - as Eric indicated - support and coverage for the president's, you know, false and demonstrably destructive claims. At key moments like this, Fox has often pulled back. In this case, it's recognizing a threat.

And it seems to be something of a vacuum of leadership at Fox News, where they are seeing - there're not huge audiences we're talking about for these competitors, but they're seeing Newsmax and OAN and some other sites erode their audience and be used by the president against them on social media. And so Fox feels pulled - you can see it playing out on the air - between being responsible enough so that it can still lay claim to the idea of being a news outlet and still appealing to the core Trump supporter, which overlaps quite neatly with the core Fox viewer.

CORNISH: So finally, in order to move forward, people need to at least somewhat agree on what happened. Quick answer from both of you - can the nation come away with a shared sense of what happened based on what you watched yesterday?

DEGGANS: Well, I'd say my sense is that this divide is growing. It's growing because there is money and profit in telling people what they want to hear, particularly in these right-leaning networks like Newsmax and One America News Network. I don't see it getting better.


FOLKENFLIK: I think that certain divisions are being hardened. I don't think they're symmetrical. I think you saw over the course the past 12, 24 hours - whether for principled or pragmatic or just political viability reasons - a number of Republicans and prominent conservatives peel off from excusing the president and his supporters anymore.

And so I think that you're going to see hardened divisions between those who remain core Trump supporters in the media and in the public at large. But that core is being segmented from the rest of the body politic. And we're going to have to see whether Fox and its others in the right-wing media take a deep breath and decide to broadcast more inclusively or whether it says this is where our finances are and this is where our future remains.

DEGGANS: You know, people have often asked if this is a made-for-TV event, and I would say that this was a made-by-television event.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Eric Deggans and David Folkenflik. Thank you both for watching for us.


DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.