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How Tucker Carlson is wrong about Jan. 6

Fox News host Tucker Carlson. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
13 min

It is important not to simply wave away Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s latest attacks on the public’s understanding of the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol as inherently untrustworthy given the source. Carlson should never have been considered a credible reviewer of video footage from that day at the outset, given that he has elevated conspiracy theories about the riot and that even Fox News attorneys have admitted that he should not be considered as objective. (Not to mention how messages revealed as part of a defamation lawsuit against the network have demonstrated that the host’s private views often don’t match his public presentations.)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on March 7 criticized Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s depiction of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. (Video: The Washington Post)

We should instead articulate why his presentations are false and misleading. First, this provides a resource that can serve as a response to those echoing his claims. And, second, it is important to document yet another example of the dishonest patterns stipulated above.

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Having been granted access to tens of thousands of hours of video from Jan. 6, 2021, Carlson began presenting his “findings” on Monday. They can be grouped into five primary claims, each incomplete, irrelevant or inaccurate.

Those in the Capitol that day were mostly peaceful and “meek”

Carlson began his review of the footage to which he’d been granted access by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) with a now-familiar bit of revisionism: The people there that day were mostly just awestruck tourists!

“Hundreds and hundreds of people, possibly thousands” entered the Capitol, Carlson said. “A small percentage of them were hooligans. They committed vandalism. You’ve seen their pictures again and again. But the overwhelming majority weren’t. They were peaceful. They were orderly and meek. These were not insurrectionists. They were sightseers.”

“They’re not destroying the Capitol,” he added later. “They obviously revere the Capitol.”

There are a lot of things happening here. The first is Carlson’s unsourced assertion about scale; only “a small percentage” were bad actors, though that’s simply an unsupported claim he makes. There’s no good way to know how many of those who entered the building committed crimes besides trespassing. The Justice Department’s indictments suggest many, many people did.

Notice, too, the framing: “hooligans” and “vandals” were afoot, the scamps. This, you may recall, was not how he presented the violence that spun out of Black Lives Matters protests in the summer of 2020.

But none of this matters. There’s no dispute that there were a lot of people who saw Donald Trump speak outside the White House who didn’t then go to the Capitol to try to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s win. That there were a lot of people who went to the Capitol but didn’t go inside or who went inside but didn’t get in by attacking police or who, once inside, didn’t break anything.

There’s also no dispute that most people in Chicago in the 1930s were not murderous members of organized crime syndicates. The problem is that a number were, and they were the ones who therefore attracted the attention of law enforcement.

The QAnon Shaman was escorted through the building by police

Carlson next focused on Jacob Chansley, the exotically dressed individual known as the “QAnon Shaman.” Chansley was shown alongside uniformed police officers, which Carlson offered as exonerating, though there were no timestamps on the footage that might help viewers understand the chronology.

“The tapes show the Capitol Police never stopped Jacob Chansley,” he said. “They helped him. They acted as his tour guides.”

Or one might read the statement of offense that Chansley signed as part of his plea agreement.

“The defendant and others pushed past the police line at the top of the scaffolding,” the statement says of Chansley. He entered through a broken window — Carlson says that the manner of his entrance is “disputed,” despite this sworn statement — and moved toward the Senate floor.

“The defendant challenged U.S. Capitol Police Officer K.R. to let them pass,” the statement reads, “ultimately using his bullhorn to rile up the crowd and demand that lawmakers be brought out.” Chansley and others entered the chamber, the officer following behind until there was a sufficient law enforcement presence to clear the room.

That police were overwhelmed was used by Carlson in his show on Tuesday night as a point of criticism against the House Democratic majority at the time. On Monday night, though, the lack of confrontations that stemmed from that understaffing was cast as police acquiescence to the rioters. On Tuesday, Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger noted that the understaffed law enforcement officers were trying to “de-escalate” the situation, not aid the rioters.

All of this is a good example of why releasing all of the footage publicly was always fraught. Calls to do so were often rooted in the belief that something was being covered up — and tens of thousands of hours of footage provide lots of opportunities for bad-faith actors like Carlson to create a coverup from scratch.

There’s “a powerful argument to be made that sunlight is always and everywhere the best disinfectant,” Carlson said — though the internet era has made clear that sunlight can also help create deceptive shadows. “In fact,” he continued, “because it is video evidence, it is to some extent self-explanatory. Anyone can look at the tape and decide what he or she thinks of it.”

Though Carlson, as always, was happy to frame the Chansley video and ignore what Chansley himself admitted.

Officer Brian D. Sicknick wasn’t a victim of physical assault

One of the odder allegations Carlson brought up was that footage that he obtained undercut a narrative about the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick that was being promoted by the media.

“Here is surveillance footage of Sicknick walking in the Capitol after he was supposedly murdered by the mob outside,” Carlson said. “By all appearances, Sicknick is healthy and vigorous.”

This is a straw man. Even at the outset, no one thought that Sicknick had been beaten by the crowd and died at the scene. Early reports that he had been struck with a fire extinguisher, leading to his death the following day, ended up being incorrect. The medical examiner eventually determined the officer had died after a pair of strokes; it’s not clear if that was linked to the riot.

Carlson ignores all of this, instead chiding the New York Times for having retracted an initial story about Sicknick’s death. This follows a familiar pattern of using corrections from media outlets interested in holding themselves accountable as points of attack. (Carlson almost never corrects his various errors; as such, his viewers can be lulled into thinking that he doesn’t make them.) Viewers unfamiliar with the story are left with the impression that Carlson has a major scoop, when in reality he simply rebutted an argument that never existed.

Ray Epps lied to investigators

One of the most revealing aspects of Carlson’s show on Monday came soon after it began.

“For more than two years, we have wondered why some in the crowd that day who seemed to be inciting violence were never indicted for it,” Carlson said. “We assumed these were federal agents of some sort. We still assume that.” He noted that his team’s review of the footage showed “many examples of behavior … that didn’t seem to make sense,” like people “in civilian clothes holding doors open for protesters, escorting others to the Capitol, etc.”

“We would love to know who these people were,” Carlson continued, “but as of tonight, we don’t know. And because we don’t know, we’re not going to put their faces on the screen and suggest they were federal agents. That would be irresponsible.”

This is so embarrassingly clumsy. It’s very odd to say that a guy in street clothes holding open a door is somehow nefarious, given that the Capitol was in the midst of being overrun by guys in street clothes. But Carlson was just trying to suggest that his long-standing insistences that somehow federal agents were involved in instigating the riot — insistences that lack any credible evidence — was not undermined by what his team saw. Instead, they were maybe bolstered, what with, you know, those dudes holding the doors.

He won’t show those dudes, of course, a decision he claims is for their protection. In reality, it is because it’s more useful to him to imply ongoing uncertainty about their status than it is to show footage that depicts nothing more than a random dude holding open a door.

Carlson has also been a central promoter of the idea that a man named Ray Epps is a federal agent who helped incite the riot. This was debunked more than a year ago, thanks to Epps’s testimony to the bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack and the lack of any evidence for Carlson’s theory.

On Monday, though, Carlson dropped a bomb: Epps had lied in that testimony. See, he replied to a text from his nephew at 2:12 p.m. after he had left the Capitol, he told committee investigators. But Carlson’s team had spotted him in the crowd half an hour later. Got him.

“What was Epps doing there? We can’t say,” Carlson said, again using the purported lack of evidence as evidence of possible deviousness. “But we do know that he lied to investigators.”

In Epps’s testimony, he says what he was doing there, of course. And, in that testimony, the timeline is murkier. Asked about the text, Epps tells committee investigators: “If I answered him, that means I was on — at 2:12, I was on my way back to the hotel room.”

Later, the committee investigator clarifies.

“So you sent that text to your nephew around 2:12, so, approximately, if that’s kind of a time point would you estimate that you left the Capitol grounds,” Epps is asked. “Around that time?” Epps replies. “Yes,” he says again.

Epps associates the message with his going back to the hotel. The footage from Carlson suggests that he is incorrect. Carlson frames this as a lie, suggesting intentionality so that he can depict Epps more broadly as untrustworthy. Never mind that this makes no sense. If Epps is a federal agent, he lied about that, too — in a deposition conducted by government officials whom Carlson presents as sympathetic to Epps’s actions. Why would they depose him if they knew he was an agent? Why would they release the deposition? If the point was to mislead, why wouldn’t they scrub out the apparent 2:12 p.m. error?

This is how all of this was always going to work. Carlson’s goal is to undercut the general understanding of what happened on Jan. 6, so he cherry-picks and reframes things that elevate doubt.

The establishment lied to Americans

Carlson repeatedly casts the House committee as dishonest actors.

For example, he notes that “Democratic investigators” — that is, investigators from the bipartisan committee that he would like to present as hopelessly biased — flagged the footage of Sicknick walking around but never released it to the public despite it proving that the officer hadn’t been murdered at the scene. But, again, it was never alleged that Sicknick had been killed at the Capitol. Carlson is just extending his straw man to attack the investigators.

At another point, he criticizes the release of footage showing Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) running out of the Capitol that day, footage that was quickly contrasted with the senator’s earlier raised-fist encouragement of the protesters outside the building.

“The clip was propaganda, not evidence,” Carlson says in a voice-over. “The actual videotape shows that Hawley was one of many lawmakers being ushered out of the building by Capitol Hill police officers. And in fact, Hawley was at the back of the pack.”

“The coward tape was a lie,” his voice-over adds, “one of many from the Jan. 6 committee.” (“One of many is for certain,” Carlson added in the live show, agreeing with himself.)

But … what’s the lie? Hawley did run in the footage and was doing so to get out of the Capitol. Perhaps one might not think of it as cowardice, but the committee didn’t use that term. Carlson did.

From the first moments of President Biden’s administration, Carlson has cast Biden and Democrats as trying to use the Capitol riot to crack down on their political opponents.

“There’s a new regime in power, and they seem to be planning to accelerate things dramatically,” the host warned soon after the inauguration. “They’re getting the FBI and the Pentagon involved in this hunt for people who may criticize them. That’s a very big change, and you should understand what it’s really about.”

Lots of people were arrested — not because they were critical of the FBI and Pentagon but because they stormed the Capitol. But Carlson has continued to hype this idea that the Democratic establishment will crack down on their opposition for more than two years despite the lack of evidence that this has occurred.

The goal of the Jan. 6 narrative is to “strip … civil liberties,” Carlson insisted, elevating the importance of the work he’s trying to portray himself as doing. Those promoting the idea that the Capitol riot was an attack on democracy “distilled an enormous number of highly complex events … into a single, emotionally laden political slogan,” he charged.

All of this was predictable. Everyone, presumably including McCarthy, knew Carlson would cherry-pick stuff from the footage to claim that he was right and his opponents wrong. That his actual presentation is so weakly argued is perhaps the only actual surprise.