News producers prepared for an unusual political event and switched to chronicling the siege by a pro-Trump mob.
“We are witnessing an attempt at sedition,” said the CNN anchor Jake Tapper.
“This is a crime,” said Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.
“This is the most significant breach of an American government institution” since the War of 1812, said Chad Pergram, the veteran congressional reporter on Fox News, adding: “The mob upended American democracy today.”
Preparing for a dramatic day in politics, television networks shifted quickly on Wednesday into the breaking news format usually reserved for foreign wars, natural disasters or terrorist attacks — only these events were unfolding live inside the most sacred spaces of American democracy.
Some anchors’ voices trembled as they narrated a siege on the United States Capitol, as the insurrection of President Trump’s supporters — incited by the president’s false claims of a stolen election — broke through barricades outside the historic building and stormed the chambers of the House and Senate, upending an effort to ratify the Electoral College vote and forcing the nation’s political leaders into hiding.
Shaky cameras and shocked correspondents dominated the coverage, but some of the most chilling footage emanated from the static cameras of C-SPAN, which watched silently as Vice President Mike Pence was abruptly ushered off the Senate floor by security forces and legislators reached for gas masks. Some law enforcement officials were seen with guns drawn.
“I heard on the radio ‘shots fired,’ 10, 15 minutes ago,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader, said in a live telephone interview on Fox News from an undisclosed location after legislators were evacuated. He called the protesters’ actions “un-American.”
Yet Mr. McCarthy, a staunch Trump ally, had been among the leading voices in the right-wing media world — including the Fox News opinion shows that champion Mr. Trump — encouraging his party to contest the victory of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., despite no evidence of fraud.
Fox News’s coverage seemed to waver at times on how to cover those who smashed windows and vandalized congressional offices. Martha MacCallum, one of the network’s lead news anchors, compared the mob’s activity to an incident this week in which graffiti was sprayed at a residence of Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. It was a bizarre link from the swarms of Trump supporters breaking into the seat of democracy, an event that made worldwide news, to a small-scale incident at the home of a Republican official.
On his Wednesday program, Tucker Carlson called the day’s violence “wrong” and said that American citizens “are inseparably intertwined.” He did not mention Mr. Trump by name in his opening monologue, and he warned that Democrats’ taking power in Washington might strip away Americans’ freedoms in reaction to Wednesday’s events.
He concluded by saying that those who showed no understanding of the concerns of the people who stormed the Capitol were foolish. “We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason,” he said. “It is not your fault. It is their fault.”
Right-wing personalities, who have helped fuel a movement built on misinformation and conspiracy theories, were reluctant to blame Mr. Trump for the violent actions of his supporters. On Newsmax, a conservative network that caters to Trump partisans — and whose most popular host, Greg Kelly, has insisted without basis that Mr. Trump can still win the election — commentators tried to denounce the mainstream media instead.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kelly echoed other Trump allies, including the Fox News star Laura Ingraham, in spreading a baseless rumor that far-left protesters were at fault for the actions of the pro-Trump mob. The notion that Trump supporters were blameless also cropped up on Mr. Carlson’s show, when a guest, Drew Hernandez, said that “antifa insurrectionists possibly could have infiltrated some of these movements.” Another Fox News personality, Brit Hume, wrote on Twitter, “Do not be surprised if we learn in the days ahead that the Trump rioters were infiltrated by leftist extremists.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Fox News and Newsmax, along with Fox Business, broadcast Mr. Trump’s incendiary, falsehood-laden speech in full, including when he urged his supporters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. (The other cable news networks did not air the president’s speech.) After the Capitol rampage, on Newsmax, Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner and felon who was pardoned by Mr. Trump, asserted that journalists “are acting like it was an armed takeover of the Capitol and that’s nonsense.”
He added, despite ample footage of the riot, that “you have six to 10 people who entered the building. OK, deal with it.”
In tranquil times, the congressional certification of the Electoral College vote is the sort of rudimentary government business typically relegated to C-SPAN. Even before the mob headed to the Capitol, the networks were prepared for a marathon day of minute-by-minute Washington coverage, as allies of President Trump in the House and Senate planned a last-ditch effort to subvert the results of the election.
The joint session of Congress started at 1 p.m., with most networks taking an uninterrupted feed from the House and Senate floors. On CNN, just after 2 p.m., Wolf Blitzer broke in with a report that “protesters are getting assertive” as the mob approached the Capitol.
Scenes flashed across American televisions that many viewers would never have imagined emanating from the nation’s capital: a bloodied woman carried from the Capitol on a stretcher by paramedics; rioters running unfettered inside the congressional chambers, smashing glass.
The CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip described the scene as “a tragedy”; Van Jones called it “treason.” On CBS, Major Garrett called the violent events “a cleavage, a ripping apart of a sense of what government is, what it’s meant to accomplish and how it is sanctified in every presidential election.”
On Fox News, the anchor Chris Wallace framed the scene as “the rule of the mob versus the rule of law and the Constitution,” noting that Mr. Trump spent an hour on Wednesday “filling a crowd with misstatements, with facts that have been absolutely shredded.”
Shortly before 4:30 p.m., Mr. Trump released a video statement, ostensibly to urge his supporters to peacefully disperse, that opened with his baseless assertion that “we had an election stolen from us.”
Mr. Tapper, in the CNN anchor chair, told viewers he had aired the tape because Mr. Trump was addressing “his supporters who are right now conducting an armed insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.”
“But I also want to note that in that video, he lies about the election being stolen and pours more fuel on the fire,” Mr. Tapper went on. “He continues his shameful behavior of lying to his supporters about what happened. It is absolutely disgraceful. I feel ambivalent about the fact that we even aired it.”
Shepard Smith, on CNBC, cut off Mr. Trump’s video before it finished, shouting aloud, “Stop the tape!” On MSNBC, Chuck Todd urged his producers to take down a photograph of an interloper lounging in the House speaker’s chair. “Don’t glorify it,” he said. Mr. Todd also described the people who stormed the Capitol as “terrorists.”
As the 6 p.m. curfew approached and the authorities moved the mob away from the Capitol, some in the crowd hurled epithets at the CNN correspondent on the ground, Donie O’Sullivan. “We’re hearing some vile language being directed at members of the media,” he said.
The NBC anchor Brian Williams described it as “a tremendously sad day.”
“We should make no mistake: These are rioters, these are insurrectionists, they have been cheered on by the president and prominent Republicans in Congress,” he said. “They have stormed the U.S. Capitol, and they have done so with ease.”
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