Shared history of January 6 is impeded by disinformation, denial and diversion

Shared history of January 6 is impeded by disinformation, denial and diversion
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A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

In an earlier era, journalists might have made certain assumptions about the aftermath of a violent attack on the Capitol. They might have expected unanimous condemnation and calls for accountability. They might have anticipated that coverage of the aftermath would be a major story, one that Americans would follow with equal fervor, regardless of partisanship.

Journalists might have thought that damning revelations about the ringleaders of the attack would be appreciated by the public. They might have assumed that minds would remain open to new information. Or at least that minds wouldn’t be wholly closed.

But we do not live in such a world — and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we haven’t lived there for quite some time. We live in a world where Donald Trump’s top supporters malign the media for being “obsessed” with January 6. A world where loyal Republicans are supposed to minimize what happened; deflect blame onto Democrats; sow conspiracy theories that raise doubts about the crimes; or — incredibly — defend the ransacking of our Capitol.

This is why all the old expectations are all the way out the window. We’re not a single story or smoking-gun confession or criminal charge away from snapping back to a shared reality. Instead, we’re experiencing something that might be best explained by psychologists or therapists or algorithm developers. To be clear, a majority of Americans accept that President Biden won the election and affirm that the January 6 riot was un-American. But a minority, largely composed of Republicans, deny that reality and make excuses for the inexcusable. And no amount of new information can persuade that minority. So what should the reality-based media call that denial?

Big picture context for this week’s anniversary

Trump’s attempted coup and the atrocious violence at the Capitol on January 6 didn’t change the disturbing dynamics of our media environment, it only crystallized them. One year later, those dynamics are even more entrenched. Folks watching this week’s news coverage of the anniversary on ABC or CNN or PBS should remember that folks watching Trump’s approved channels aren’t seeing the same thing. They’re hardly seeing any riot-related coverage on Fox at all. And when the conversations do happen on far-right TV, blame-shifting and conspiracizing are the norm. (Watch how Trump’s press conference is and isn’t covered on Thursday.)

“The denialism is very much rooted in kind of a desire not to be pinned with something that was so horrific,” researcher Nicole Hemmer told me. So it’s a face-saving move, an attempt “to reclaim some good higher ground,” she said.

Hemmer and I agreed that there will never be a widely agreed-upon narrative of 1/6. “I think it’s important to recognize just how much the right sees itself as a victim of January 6 rather than the perpetrator,” she said. Jonathan Swan of Axios has some new reporting about that.

That’s the perfect set-up for this next item…

Donie’s dispatch from DC

Donie O’Sullivan writes from DC: “Because of disinformation, denial and diversion, Americans do not have a shared understanding — a shared history — of what happened here on January 6 last year. In our Monday night report for ‘AC360,’ I spoke with Trump supporters about how they remember, and misremember, January 6. Many of the people I met who are genuinely convinced the 2020 election was rigged now seem to genuinely believe it wasn’t Trump supporters who were at the Capitol that day.” Here are a few of the memorable comments from Trump loyalists:

>> Lisa: “The Democrats were behind it all. They’re the ones that caused it all.”

>> Anita: “I think the whole reporting of it is a giant hoax.”

>> Marge: “We are very peaceful people. So it was a total set-up. To me, it was the FBI had set it up.”

>> Jeanie: “Trump won the election. They’ve proven it over and over again.”

Donie adds: “There’s a very sophisticated infrastructure of disinformation by design — including both right-wing TV and social media rabbit holes — so if people want to live in this narrative, they can, very happily. But here’s what I see: Growing distrust in the integrity of American elections; a failure to acknowledge or learn from an attack on the Capitol; and an ongoing campaign to get election deniers to become election officials. None of it paints a pretty picture of what might come in the years ahead…”

Related reading

— Ipsos VP Mallory Newall discussing the firm’s new poll for NPR: “There is really a sort of dual reality through which partisans are approaching not only what happened a year ago on Jan. 6, but also generally with our presidential election and our democracy…”

— David Frum’s insightful comment: “Unlike the 9/11 trauma, this is an interior challenge. It makes it in some ways more difficult and in many ways more painful…”

— Michael Fanone, who was beaten by rioters on 1/6 and recently resigned from the DC police force, officially joined CNN as a law enforcement analyst on Monday. “Welcome to the family,” Don Lemon told him on air…

— Fanone discussed this awful newly released footage of a three-hour video of a battle between rioters and police. The footage demonstrates how the story of 1/6 keeps getting bigger and bigger, even as pro-Trump outlets try to make it shrink and shrink…

— Look to Erick Erickson’s Twitter feed for illustrative examples of right-wing reaction to the anniversary. “There is a genuine obsession in the press about” 1/6, he wrote Sunday. “It was a bad day, but it doesn’t outweigh crime, inflation, COVID, school closures, etc. for voters.” A bad day…

Talking about trauma

“We don’t talk enough about the trauma many journalists endure — in large part because we are not supposed to know about it: Journalists never want to eclipse the subjects and broader themes at the heart of our stories,” Jason Rezaian writes in his latest WaPo piece. But those journalists — like the ones who “covered the insurrection, documenting the most direct threat to our democracy since the Civil War” — need care and support, he writes.

This is why I led Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” telecast with two reporters who have been candid about their mental health in the months after 1/6. Hunter Walker was on the outside the building, covering the attack for Yahoo, and Grace Segers was on the inside, reporting for CBS. “We’re all kind of feeling the same thing right now, this sort of disbelief that already a year has gone by and here we are,” Segers, now a staff writer at the New Republic, said. “There’s a bit of an informal network of reporters who’ve been through it that day, and are still coping with that, who are leaning on each other and talking to each other,” Walker, now the author of The Uprising newsletter, said.

Both emphasized the need for accountability. Walker said right-wing riot denialism “has almost made me want to stick to the story even more and made me mission-driven in my approach.” Watch part one and part two here…

“We also need to focus on democracy’s heroes”

Oliver Darcy writes: “Margaret Sullivan’s Monday column was all about encouraging news orgs to put pro-democracy coverage front and center — and it included some suggestions, such as placing stories on the subject in front of paywalls. But one other idea stood out to me: doing more to spotlight the people standing up for our democratic system, as much as spotlighting those who are working to tear it down. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat told Sullivan, ‘We focus on the enemies of democracy, the villains, but we also need to focus on democracy’s heroes.’ Read on…

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