The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From historic day to ‘insurrection,’ how the mob takeover of the Capitol unfolded in news coverage

Trump supporters scaled walls to overtake the U.S. Capitol and gain access to the building. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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A day that began with a series of news events long in the making — a protest rally, a congressional vote — unexpectedly morphed into chaos on Wednesday, prompting a slow-dawning reaction by the TV networks and the rest of the media.

As many screens were fixed on the joint session of Congress debating challenges to Joe Biden’s electoral victory, the story began to change about 1:15 p.m. Eastern time: Protesters from a rally promoted by President Trump began to converge by the thousands on the U.S. Capitol, cheered on by Trump himself.

What began as Trump-orchestrated stagecraft quickly turned into mob action that had TV commentators grasping for ever more extreme adjectives — “insurrection,” “anarchism,” “domestic terrorism.”

“The most significant breach of an American government institution since the Battle of Bladensburg,” said Chad Pergram, Fox News’s congressional correspondent, citing a turning point in the War of 1812 as protesters pushed past barriers, overwhelmed police lines and stormed through the building.

Late-arriving law enforcement officials, including National Guard troops, appeared to restore some order around sunset, but not before a series of disturbing images rolled across TV screens. The footage included video of rioters smashing windows to enter the Capitol and interlopers roaming about unimpeded in the House and Senate chambers and occupying offices, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Live updates: Pro-Trump mob storms U.S. Capitol

On CNN, White House reporter Jim Acosta called it a “bonfire of the insanities.” Anchor Jake Tapper termed it “a disgraceful moment in U.S. history.” NBC anchor Lester Holt told viewers it resembled “a coup attempt” and added, “I certainly feel the loss of words to describe what we're seeing and how this will resonate.”

Trump supporters overtook Capitol Police officers to enter the building as lawmakers attempted to count the electoral college votes on Jan. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

The chaos picked up steam at an hour when most of the television networks focused primarily on the congressional process. It took time for many reporters and producers to realize what was going on and shift their coverage as congressional correspondents turned into war correspondents, phoning in reports as they ducked for cover. Across all the networks, on-air reporters interviewed members of Congress and asked whether they could reveal their location; most declined to do so for security reasons.

At 2:22 p.m., the situation was still calm enough for Fox News correspondent Griff Jenkins to observe: “It has been peaceful, I should point out. Everything we have seen so far has been nothing but peaceful.” His anchor colleague Martha MacCallum early on described the breaching of the building as “a huge victory for these protesters” because they had disrupted a process that Trump had objected to.

The tone began to change within minutes.

As the confusion mounted, the networks were forced to adjust on the fly. At one point, Fox News anchor Dana Perino was overheard saying, “Do we have Bret?,” referring to co-anchor Bret Baier. At another point, she said, “Who? I can’t hear.”

MSNBC anchor Katy Tur said she wasn’t aware of the impending chaos until she saw Vice President Pence rushed out of the Chamber, and she interrupted the broadcast to shift gears. “I realized that the situation was suddenly a whole lot more dire than angry protesters outside the Capitol.”

Reporters, anchors and commentators on all the major broadcast and cable news networks were quick to call out the behavior of the rioters in fierce, direct language — even on Fox News, until recently the president’s favorite television channel.

Baier, who bemoaned the “dangerous situation,” criticized Trump and said he needed to do more than send a tweet asking his supporters to not attack police officers. “He said he was a law-and-order candidate,” Baier said. “This is anything but law and order.”

CNN’s Tapper blamed Trump for encouraging the rampage, saying that his rhetoric at the “Stop the Steal” rally on the White House Ellipse amounted to “spilling fuel like the Exxon Valdez” on a volatile situation.

“We are watching an attempt at sedition,” Tapper said. “We are watching an attempt at a bloodless coup.” He called the event a “shameful, disgusting situation,” but said that it was “eminently predictable” based on the actions and words of the president, who had told his supporters not to give up the fight.

He later mused openly about whether it was time for Trump’s Cabinet to invoke the Constitution’s 25th Amendment and remove him from office two weeks before Biden’s inauguration.

Fox anchor Chris Wallace said the breach of the Capitol was “a huge security lapse. Certainly, 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.”

Reporters on the scene quickly found themselves in danger from the mob. A group of TV journalists outside the Capitol were swarmed and chased away from their cameras and equipment, which Trump supporters trashed and tried to light on fire.

On MSNBC, viewers saw photos of police officers with guns drawn. A woman with a bloodied face was seen being brought out of the Capitol on a stretcher.

Chuck Todd, who hosts an afternoon show on MSNBC, described them as “terrorists and protesters” who were “terrorizing this country.”

His colleague Andrea Mitchell noted that the channel had secured a photo of a protester who had mounted the speaker’s podium. As the image appeared on screen for a few seconds, Todd quickly interrupted, “Let’s not glorify this” as MSNBC then quickly cut away.

On ABC, congressional correspondent Mary Bruce started talking about “protesters” but caught herself: “We should point out that’s probably not the word we should be using — these anarchists. . . .”

On CNBC, anchor Shepard Smith teed up the president’s just-released video encouraging his supporters at the Capitol to disperse. But when it opened with Trump’s familiar false claims about the election — “an election that was stolen from us” — Smith cut it short.

“Stop! Stop the tape,” Smith said. “That is not true. And we are not airing it.”

Across television news, networks attempted to get across the seriousness of the situation with chyrons, the on-screen graphics that narrative events to viewers. “GUNS DRAWN ON HOUSE FLOOR,” a Fox News graphic read.

CNN tried to sum up the events of the afternoon in just six words: “INSURRECTION IN WASHINGTON FOLLOWING TRUMP ENCOURAGEMENT.”

Sarah Ellison contributed to this story.