The Jan. 6 anniversary: How the media failed — and still can't admit it
It is difficult if not impossible to solve a problem when one lacks the language to properly describe and understand it. That problem is made worse if the language is available but people refuse to use it.
In the Age of Trump, too many members of the American mainstream news media and the larger political class have either forgotten or never learned that commonsense wisdom.
In a recent interview with historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, bestselling author and intelligence expert Malcolm Nance described this situation:
New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently tweeted that we're in collective denial. That we are standing on the precipice. That the American experiment is about to end. I have been screaming this from the rooftops.
As for the news media, they're not like ostriches with their heads in the sand. They are literally living a pie-in-the-sky life where, if you live in New York City and Donald Trump does horrible things, the bodega still has flowers. You can still go and get a sandwich in 2 in the morning. You can still get an Uber. It's almost like we would require to have the American version of the Blitz occur.
I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia. And one of the first things I learned about in my early tweens period was the Holocaust. I have twice been invited to speak at Auschwitz, and at the last conference I went to, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was questioning whether the world was going back into an authoritarian era where we could see pogroms again.
I've watched this happen in other countries and I see the dominoes start to fall over in my own country. I think we are in a very dangerous state. We have 10 months to wake up because the November 2022 elections will determine whether America descends rapidly into authoritarianism and quite possibly dictatorship.
America's mainstream news media bears a great amount of responsibility for the Age of Trump and the country's escalating democracy crisis. Instead of consistently sounding the alarm and warning the American people and the world about the existential threat represented by Donald Trump and his movement, for years the mainstream media chose to normalize it.
When the prominent voices among the country's mainstream news media finally admitted to themselves the reality of how dangerous Trump and his neofascist movement were and are, it was already too late. The fascist tide was rising uncontrollably.
Despite all available evidence to the contrary, America's mainstream news media and other trusted public voices were committed to the fiction that once Joe Biden was president somehow everything would be OK. In their minds, "normalcy" and "tradition" would bring the madness of Trump and his political cult to heel. Of course the events of Jan. 6 and beyond exposed those childish fantasies as the hollow hopes and dreams common to elites in a failing democracy.
The one-year anniversary of Jan. 6 was marked by hundreds (if not thousands) of thinkpieces, personal essays, reflections, news items and reporting of various kinds. But in the aggregate, what was not said or written about Jan. 6 was arguably more important than what was said and written.
The word "fascism" was, for the most part, not used. In essence, the most powerful and accurate language to describe Trumpism and the threat to democracy it represents was erased from America's public discourse in these discussions. This is congruent with the fact that "fascism" was not broadly or consistently used by the mainstream news media during Trump's presidency. "Authoritarianism" is sometimes used, which may be accurate but is unspecific, or the even vaguer term "populism."
The terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol is still frequently described as a "riot," when in reality that event was instigated and announced weeks if not months earlier, and to a significant degree was planned and coordinated rather than spontaneous.
Trump's attack force is often described as "insurrectionists," as opposed to a blunter term such as "terrorists" or "traitors." The words "cabal" and "conspiracy" were hardly used at all to describe those who planned the attack.
In reality, the Trump regime and its agents, across the country and on all levels of government, worked to overthrow America's multiracial democracy by nullifying the 2020 presidential election and installing Donald Trump as de facto dictator. Evidence of these criminal acts continues to grow on a daily and weekly basis.
By almost all definitions and commonsense understandings, the Trump regime and its forces were a cabal involved in a conspiracy against American democracy, one intended to subvert the Constitution and the rule of law, and to defy the will of the American people. When the mainstream media refuses to use such language with any consistency, it downplays the dire and ongoing threat that the Republican fascist movement and the larger white right represent.
Donald Trump's neofascist Republican Party and personality cult, the current American "conservative" movement and the larger white right are part of a global campaign to secure permanent white (male) power and privilege and control over all aspects of life. If they achieve their goals here in America, multiracial democracy would be effectively dead. The rights and freedoms of a large majority of the population — women, nonwhite people, LGBTQ people, those with disabilities, Muslims, Jews, the poor, non-Christians and whoever else is deemed to be the Other — would be rolled back or extinguished.
Jan. 6, 2021, was a landmark moment in this revolutionary-reactionary struggle for world domination. Instead of properly locating Trump's coup attempt in that context, the American mainstream news media continues to describe it as mostly an isolated event. Where were the critical self-reflections, self-recriminations and apologies for the mainstream media's many failures during the Age of Trump, as crystallized on that day a year ago? I saw few examples that would qualify.
Perhaps even more troubling, the media continues to use a narrative frame of "surprise" and "shock" to describe Trump's coup attempt and his followers' attack on the Capitol. I described this in a previous essay for Salon:
Yet a full year after Trump's coup attempt, many members of the chattering class and the commentariat — the vast majority of whom are white — still describe the events of that day as "unimaginable," "unbelievable" or "shocking." Such language, and such patterns of thought, reveal a deep unwillingness to grapple with and accept the truth about American's centuries-long history of white-on-Black (and white-on-brown) political violence.
Too many of these public voices have chosen to remain ignorant of their own country's history, and in doing so have passed along that ignorance to the very public they supposedly serve. This denial also explains why so many members of the media and political class refuse to comprehend the existential threat to American democracy represented by Republican fascists and the larger right-wing movement.
To properly confront the origins and implications of Trump and the Republican fascists' assault on democracy would demand an interrogation of white privilege and white identity — and asking hard questions about the relationship between what it means to be "American" and what it means to be "white." Such questions require disrupting and challenging the big and little lies that sustain whiteness as an identity, and the assumption that those who embrace it are inherently good, noble and innocent
What of the right-wing propaganda disinformation machine and echo chamber? Its propagandists and professional liars chose either to ignore the Jan. 6 anniversary or to process the Capitol attack through the Big Lie as a story of white victimhood and white oppression, where white Trumpist "patriots" are now "political prisoners" or even "martyrs" in a war against the "tyrannical" Joe Biden, the "socialist" Democrats and the monstrous forces of "wokeness." Ultimately, Jan. 6 will become a rallying cry and symbol used to encourage more right-wing political violence and, in all probability, a second coup attempt in the future.
As if succumbing to an addiction, some leading national publications defaulted to the obsolescent and dangerous habit of using "both sides" language, describing the events of Jan. 6 and the escalating attacks on American democracy by the Republican-fascist movement and its agents as evidence of a "divided nation" or "polarization" between "blue" and "red" realities. Some mainstream media outlets even featured contributions from Trump enablers and other fascist sympathizers, in search of "balance" and the need for a "range of opinions."
That is a symptom of a much bigger problem: Throughout the Age of Trump, the mainstream media has largely avoided stating the plain facts: It is the Republican fascists and their white supremacist movement that are committed to overthrowing democracy. That attack is unidirectional; the Democrats are attempting to protect democracy (however ineffectively), not destroy it.
The media's task should have been (and continues to be) making complex issues more legible, empowering the American people to make better and more responsible decisions about democracy, speaking with moral clarity, and consistently telling uncomfortable truths about the rise of neofascism and the existential threat it represents. Going forward, that task has become even more urgent if the forces of neofascism are to be defeated, in this country and around the world.
A recent opinion column at the Arizona Republic summarized this:
Rarely in our history have the lines between right and wrong been so evident — and rarely has it been so incumbent upon journalism to make those lines clear. Yes, there are stories that are best told by presenting readers, viewers and listeners the facts and letting them make up their minds. We report, you decide, or whatever the old wink-and-a-nod Fox News slogan was.
This is not one of them.
Think back to Jan. 6. Think of the hours after the attack began. Think of darkness falling on a chilly day in Washington, D.C. Think of the eerie lights of the Capitol set against that encroaching darkness — and the silhouettes of the mob that had forced its way in, intent on doing damage and maybe worse. Think of how that felt.
Now think of the responsibility it demands.
We have learned, in the last year, a lot about how dangerous to democracy the Jan. 6 attack really was — even more dangerous than we thought. We have learned more about Trump's involvement and reaction.
A lot of that we've learned through good journalism. We will continue to learn more. Some people will ignore the facts laid out in front of them. OK. Some readers will disagree. So will some viewers. OK. No business sets out to lose customers, but this is more important. This is at the core of what journalism does. This is telling the truth, and if people don't listen, tell it louder. Then tell it again.
Journalists shouldn't do this work as if their jobs depended on it. They should do it as if the country depended on it. Because it does.
My expectations are less hopeful. As Republicans and their allies cement more control over American government and society — likely regaining Congress in the 2022 midterms and perhaps the White House in 2024 — many members of the establishment news media (especially Beltway-style "access journalists") will choose to collaborate with the new political order. They will justify their decision through various mental gymnastics: They did this for reasons of "survival" or "safety," or to provide a "voice of reason" and serve as a "conduit for truth." For the more honest, it will be clear they made a mercenary decision, in search of money, career advancement, social capital and prestige.
In the end, those members of the news media and other elites who are not telling the truth about Jan. 6, the Republican fascists and America's democracy crisis now, when it's relatively easy to do so, certainly will not do so later, when it becomes much more difficult and dangerous. How those with public voices chose to speak about the Jan. 6 anniversary offers a preview of what they will say and do later, as democracy crumbles and the Republican fascists seize power.
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