Politicians weren’t the only targets of the white supremacist mob that stormed the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 in an unprecedented act of mass sedition and violence. Journalists too, were targeted.
As we continue to process the horrifying events that erupted in Washington D.C. last week, stories of journalists have emerged—journalists who courageously stood their ground and documented history as they were surrounded by an unmasked hoard (amid a raging pandemic no less), nearly paying the ultimate price for their efforts to bring us the truth.
Associated Press photographer John Minchillo was filmed being assaulted by the hoard. After being identified as a New York Times photographer, Erin Schaff was thrown to the floor and had her equipment broken, and when police came supposedly to her aid, they drew their guns on her. Washington Post photojournalist Amanda Andrade-Rhoades reportedly had three different people threaten to shoot her.
As the violent wave of white supremacy that engulfed the Capitol began to recede last Wednesday, I watched video of what were essentially terrorists being politely escorted from the building by law enforcement and saw the words “Murder the Media” carved into a door.
Unfortunately last week’s disaster was a logical conclusion of the past four years, a culmination of the toxic rhetoric continuously spewed from the Trump White House.
For years, one of my greatest concerns has been the gradual erosion of “media literacy,” which simply put, is the ability to distinguish reputable news produced by qualified and trained journalists from propaganda produced by opportunists and provocateurs who seek to sow doubt and mistrust.
These terrorists who descended upon the Capitol, as well as the people who attended the Trump rally moments before, were motivated by the same conspiracy theory: The election was “stolen” from Donald Trump. This conspiracy theory was peddled not only by the president himself, but by an entire ecosystem of far right internet personalities, blogs and social media accounts, all of which have capitalized on the mainstreaming of white supremacy, preaching their gospel of disinformation and brainwashing millions in the process.
Shortly before the Capitol was stormed, multiple Senators objected to certifying the results of the 2020 Election. Their chests swollen in defiance, eyes glowing with naked political ambition, they cynically evoked fair process. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was chief among them; he stated that 39 percent of Americans believe the election was rigged, therefore the results must be questioned, though not of course in any of the states that Trump won. (While we’re on the topic of Truth versus Fiction, Politifact determined Cruz’s statement mostly false).
Let’s indulge for the sake of argument that even 10 percent of the 74 million people, who voted for four more years of inept leadership from a vile human being, truly believe that the election was fraudulent. That is 7.4 million people.
The truth that millions of people in this country are either unable or unwilling to distinguish the basic difference between fact and fiction is deeply troubling. These people now view us as adversaries, adversaries who are in some cases deserving of physical violence.
My concern about the lack of media literacy has often been dismissed: It’s only “boomers” and the elderly who are falling prey to and reposting “news” from Russian, Chinese, Christo-Fascist and white supremacists propaganda sites.
The vast majority of the people I saw storming the capital were young, white and angry (Yes there were some people of color there too. Colonized minds lead to the colonized mindset of maintaining white supremacy).
Long before it became a trendy slogan, “Stop the Steal” organizer and convicted felon Ali Alexander had amassed a Twitter following of 200,000, before finally being booted on Jan. 10. Holocaust denier Nicholas Joseph Fuentes, a 22-year-old far right youtuber and provocateur, who has called for the killing of politicians and was also present at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, has his own devout following. These two aren’t alone, but certainly are responsible for the rage that fueled the mob last Wednesday.
My question, which I hope will be answered, is: “Who is funding the massive spread of this disinformation, which has indoctrinated and spurred millions of people to willingly commit acts of violence against politicians, journalists and now, ironically, the police?”
Media literacy is more than just being able to spot a single fake “news” story. It’s about recognizing the vast ocean of disinformation that exists. It’s exposing why millions of people are convinced that getting their information from a far-right social media influencer is preferable to getting it from a reputable news outlet. These far-right disinformers knowingly peddle false information because they believe it will resonate with disillusioned people who are seeking comfort in their confirmation bias.
I believe part of the reason why people have become disillusioned is that they don’t know how journalism works. At heart, journalism is civics, including an understanding of how government functions. We journalists comprise the so-called “fourth estate,” the unofficial fourth branch of government meant to hold the other three accountable. This isn’t taught in schools anymore unfortunately, or at least I don’t remember any significant time dedicated to this subject, other than in specific journalism classes.
It enrages me when I hear people demonize “the media” and diminish the work of us journalists. I have my issues with mainstream media, of course. But I think mostly those are having to do with the corrupting influence of capital and the lack of representation from communities that have been historically ignored.
I’ve heard the voices who assert that the anger these self-ordained “patriots” harbor is real, and that we should hear them out. I have issues with this. Because it can only happen if this side comes to the logical conclusion that the source of their pain is manufactured and self-imposed by their willingness to believe those who intentionally spread lies.
As a journalist, I fear we may never get to the place where people can adequately distinguish fact from fiction. But as journalists accustomed to being “neutral,” we had better start caring about the truth. Because if we don’t, we won’t be prepared for the violence that is assuredly yet to come.