As Jan. 6 panel’s evidence piled up, conservative media doubled down


Many top conservative media personalities have continued to push a more sanitized narrative of Jan. 6, 2021.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a Save America rally Friday, July 22, 2022, in Prescott, Ariz. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File

After the Jan. 6 committee’s final summer hearing last week, the talk on the sets of CNN and MSNBC turned to an intriguing if familiar possibility about what might result from the panel’s finding. The case for a criminal prosecution of former President Donald Trump, many pundits said, was not only justified but seemed more than likely given the evidence of his inaction as rioters sacked the Capitol.

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If that felt like deja vu — more predictions of Trump’s looming downfall — the response to the hearings from the pro-Trump platforms felt like something new, reflecting the lengths to which his Praetorian Guard of friendly media have gone to rewrite the violent history of that day.

Even as the committee’s vivid depiction of Trump’s failure to intervene led two influential outlets on the right, The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, to denounce him over the weekend, many top conservative media personalities have continued to push a more sanitized narrative of Jan. 6, 2021. They have turned the Capitol Police into villains and alleged the existence of a government plot to criminalize political dissent.

Mark Levin, the talk radio host, scoffed at the notion that Trump had tried to overturn the election or instigate an insurrection. If he had, Levin explained during an appearance on Fox News as other networks aired the hearings live, the former president would have taken more direct steps, such as ordering the arrest of Vice President Mike Pence or firing the attorney general.

“You’d think with all the talk of criminality, they would show us,” Levin said, speaking on Fox News on Thursday night. “There’s nothing,” he added. “Absolutely zero evidence that Donald Trump was involved in an effort to violently overthrow our elections or our government. Literally nothing.”

And to put a finer point on exactly what he meant, Levin read from a section of the 14th Amendment that says anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” is barred from holding federal office.

That was why the media kept calling Jan. 6 “an insurrection,” Levin explained.

Part of the right’s message to Trump supporters is, in effect: You may have initially recoiled in horror at what you thought happened at the Capitol, but you were misled by the mainstream media.

“What’s weird is that when I talk to these people, their disgust with the media over Jan. 6 is stronger now than it was a year ago,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman and talk radio host who left the party because of its unwavering support for Trump. By the time the committee presented its evidence, Walsh added, “half the country didn’t give a damn or thought it was a hoax.”

The dissonance can be perplexing. The same Fox News hosts who were imploring the president’s chief of staff to intercede with the president or risk “destroying his legacy,” as Laura Ingraham put it in a text to Mark Meadows on Jan. 6, now accuse the mainstream media of exaggerating the events at the Capitol.

The narrative often relies on kernels of truth about incomplete or inconsistent statements from law enforcement and witnesses — a typical occurrence in any investigation so sprawling — that Trump’s allies in the media then magnify.

One of the most influential journalists on the right who has backed Trump after Jan. 6 is Julie Kelly, a writer for the website American Greatness, whose articles have informed the coverage in larger conservative media outlets such as Fox News. For more than a year, Kelly has raised doubts about the severity of the attack and played down the deaths of the police officers on the scene that day.

An early report from the Capitol Police on Jan. 6 stated that Brian Sicknick, an officer, died after collapsing from injuries sustained “while physically engaging” with pro-Trump rioters. An autopsy later revealed that he had died of natural causes after suffering multiple strokes hours after the attack.

Kelly and others seized on the findings, often without acknowledging that the officer had been assaulted and sprayed with an unknown chemical irritant by rioters, or allowing for the possibility that the trauma he experienced played a role in his condition, which the medical examiner noted. “Sicknick didn’t die as a result of anything that took place on January 6,” she declared in April in a piece that ran under the headline “Defund the Capitol Police.” “But that is not stopping Capitol Police from continuing to peddle the lie that Trump supporters are responsible for his death,” Kelly added.

In an email, Kelly defended her article, saying, “As I continue to report, there is no medical evidence tying the events of January 6 to Officer Sicknick’s stroke.”

Another way conservative media personalities have turned on the Capitol Police is to claim that the notion of people breaching the Capitol by force is some kind of hoax.

The Jan. 6 committee has shown numerous videos of rioters breaking in. One captured a member of the Proud Boys, Dominic Pezzola, using a police shield to smash through a window, allowing dozens of rioters to storm the building.

On Tucker Carlson’s Friday program on Fox News, he mocked the testimony of an anonymous former White House security official who said that Secret Service agents had called their families to say goodbye in case they were killed. Then Carlson played video in which Capitol Police officers, vastly outnumbered, stand by passively as rioters stream through barricades.

“We can’t know why police are on video letting people into the Capitol complex,” he said, calling the hearings a “show trial” and saying he was proud of his network for not broadcasting them in prime time.

As Capitol Police officers are portrayed as something less than heroic, new heroes emerge. One story that went viral on the right in the past week was about a 69-year-old woman, Pam Hemphill, who recently began a 60-day prison sentence after pleading guilty to trespassing in the Capitol on Jan. 6. The way Hemphill was portrayed on the “Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show,” which replaced Rush Limbaugh’s program in many markets, was typical of the sympathetic messages conservatives heard about her. The hosts described her as a victim — a grandmother and a cancer patient who was given an unreasonably harsh sentence.

“Think about months of BLM protests all over this country,” said Travis, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement. “How many of those actual rioters are doing 60 days in prison for what they caused? This is absolutely indefensible.”

Even the biggest revelations from the committee have fallen flat in right-wing media. When Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide, described Trump’s violent reaction after the Secret Service agents refused to escort him to the Capitol, some right-wing commentators insisted that the former president’s fans would be heartened to hear that he was enraged about not being able to go.

Alex Marlow, host of Breitbart News Daily, told his listeners that many Trump supporters loved the idea that their president was fighting to join them at the Capitol, as he told them he would.

In an email, Marlow said he thought many conservatives in his audience saw the hearings as they did the impeachment proceedings and the investigation conducted by Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “Trump was a victim, yet again, of a drive-by smear campaign by the political and media establishments,” he said, describing his listeners’ view.

Part of the effectiveness of the conservative media’s defense of the former president’s conduct on Jan. 6 has been its uniformity. Few have broken ranks to question his actions as the committee made its case. Some, however, have started to show an interest in other potential Trump rivals such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Ingraham broadcast her show Friday on location from Florida, where she interviewed DeSantis.

But the Post’s and the Journal’s blistering denunciations of Trump over the weekend suggest that deeper cracks may be starting to form.

Both publications, which, like Fox News, are part of Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media empire, published editorials questioning Trump’s character. The Journal described the latest revelations of his inaction as “horrifying.”

The Post went further, calling his behavior on Jan. 6 his “eternal shame” and declaring, “Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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