In the day long events commemorating January 6th, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a telling statement to her fellow members and the public at large. Pelosi declared “It is essential that we preserve the narrative of January 6th.” Part of that narrative is that this was not a riot but an “insurrection,” an actual “rebellion” against our country. Pelosi’s concern over the viability of that narrative is well-based as shown by a recent CBS News poll. The majority of the public does not believe that this was an “insurrection” despite the mantra-like repetition of members of Congress and the media. The public saw that terrible day unfold a year ago and saw it for what it was: a protest that became a riot. (For full disclosure, I previously worked as a legal analyst for CBS News).
Not surprisingly, the poll received little comparative coverage on a day when reporters and commentators spoke of “the insurrection” as an undeniable fact. Yet, when CBS asked Americans, they received an answer that likely did not please many. Indeed, CBS did not highlight the answer to the question of whether the day was really a “protest that went too far.” The answer was overwhelming and nonpartisan. Some 76% believe that this was a protest that went too far.
That, however, was not one of the four options to the matinee question featured by CBS. It did not allow the public to call this a riot when it asked them to describe “What happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021?” Why? There was the ever present “insurrection” and “trying to overthrow government.” However, the other two options were “patriotism” or “defending freedom.” That is perfectly bizarre. The most obvious alternatives to an actual rebellion in a violent clash would be a protest or a riot. However, the public was simply not given those options.
The result was predictable. Some 85% of Democrats dutifully checked “an insurrection” or “trying to overthrow government” while only 21% and 18% of Republicans agreed respectively. For those who did not see the riot as an act of patriotism or defending freedom, they were simply left without a choice.
The poll perfectly captured the state of our media. There is no choice. Using the term insurrection is now a litmus test. In the age of rage, one’s legitimacy is based on your volume and fury. After the attack, I wrote that this was not an insurrection, but it was a desecration of our constitutional process. When I have used “riot” in columns, I have received a torrent of emails objecting to the characterization as proof of being an apologist or “Trumper.”
Yet, “insurrection” and “sedition” are legal terms. They have a meaning. The FBI investigated thousands after January 6th and charged hundreds. Not one is charged with insurrection or sedition or conspiracy to overthrow the country. The vast majority are charged with relatively minor offenses of trespass or unlawful entry or property damage- the type of charges that are common in protests and riots.
None of that takes away from the disgraceful conduct of these people or the legitimacy of their prosecution. It is simply not an insurrection. This was a protest fueled by reckless rhetoric that was allowed to become a full riot by a shocking lack of security preparations by the Capitol police and the District of Columbia. A large national guard deployment was rejected and critical intelligence not shared by officials planning for the long-planned protests. Again, the fault still remains with the rioters themselves but this would have remained a protest if Congress had taken obvious steps of fencing and guard deployments. Indeed, those measures were used previously in Lafayette Park when the White House security was almost breached by rioters.
Yet, there remains a determined effort to keep the “insurrection” narrative “preserved.” The New York Times recently declared “Every Day is Now Jan. 6.” This is not simply important for political purposes. Democratic members and groups are again calling for members (and Trump himself) to be disqualified from running for future offices under the 14th Amendment. The “disqualification clause” was created for actual rebels who attempted to overthrow the government in the Civil War. Self-described “pro-democracy” advocates like Marc Elias believe that nothing says democracy like barring people from voting for the candidates of their choice.
If January 6th was an insurrection, then members challenging the electoral votes were little more than Confederate rebels. As with villages in Vietnam, it seems that democracy will be saved by destroying it.
The problem is that the public is not buying it. Even when the public is not given the choice by CBS of calling this a riot rather than an insurrection, the truth emerges like water finding a way out. The poll also shows the limits of not just Speaker Pelosi but the mainstream media in preserving such narratives. Despite the endless drumbeat of coverage referring to the day as an “insurrection,” the media cannot get the public to ignore what they witnessed — any more than getting viewers to accept reporting on largely “peaceful” protests with images of burning buildings in the background. When the media was instructed to call the violent riots of prior summers “protests,” the effort to “preserve the narrative” failed with almost comical results. This is why the “Let’s Go Brandon” movement is as much a criticism of the media as it is the President.
The failure to “preserve the narrative” is due to the fact that media is now locked into echo chambers of their own making. We have seen the rise of advocacy journalism where the narrative, not the news, controls the reporting. As Stanford journalism professor Ted Glasser explained “journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.”
The media, however, has become less and less relevant to public opinion. Despite the censorship of social media companies and the support of a legion of willing academics and experts, the coverage is largely self-contained. Most networks and newspapers have effectively written off half of the country. They are singing to the choir. That is reflected in the CBS poll. The public was given the same options that viewers are given every night on network and cable programs: either call this an insurrection or join the Proud Boys and call it an act of patriotism.
The disconnect is dangerous. The effort to disqualify Trump or Republican incumbents is unlikely to succeed. That will not diminish the damage. Indeed, it will only further fuel the anger and, yes, the potential for violence on both sides. Despite the CBS poll, there is a choice for the public. It can still reach its own conclusions . . . increasingly without the help of the media.