Speaking on Fox News hours after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, a somber Tucker Carlson had a message for his audience: What happened was tragic, but it was also understandable—maybe even inevitable. “Millions of Americans sincerely believe the last election was fake,” he said. It’s a message that has aired on Fox News again and again since the riot: Violence occurred because the rioters had not had, in Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade’s words, “their day in court.” (Spoiler alert: They had many, many days in court.) For Carlson, the takeaway was simple: This is what happens when you coddle left-wing protesters and fail to take seriously the concern of decent Republicans. “We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason,” he said. “It is not your fault. It is their fault.”
Carlson summed up the right-wing and conservative media’s approach to the riot at the Capitol, which also happens to be a core tent of Trumpism itself: Everything—and I mean everything—going wrong in your life and the country, if not the world? It’s the fault of Democrats and the “radical left.” Since Trump’s loss in the November election, cable networks on the right—Fox News, One America News Network, Newsmax—have coddled their viewers, shoveling them misinformation about the election while insisting that they were right to believe it was stolen from them. This approach paved the way for Wednesday’s riot. These networks haven’t changed their tune in its aftermath.
Mainstream media coverage of Wednesday’s riot at the U.S. Capitol has understandably focused on the role of social media and the internet. The mob was organized on big platforms like Facebook and Twitter and on right-wing upstarts like Gab and Parler. Once inside the Capitol, the insurgents livestreamed and posed for selfies—it was, as BuzzFeed’s Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote, “a coup for the ’gram.” The riot was “a striking repudiation of the idea that there is an online and an offline world and that what is said online is in some way kept online,” Renee DiResta, a researcher at Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, told The New York Times.
Something similar is happening with the more traditional parts of the right-wing media ecosystem. Radio shows, cable news, and social media sites are combining to create an alternate reality. While some congressional Republicans are angry and contrite about the violence incited by the president, there is no such self-reflection happening in the media consumed by millions of their supporters.
“We’re supposed to be horrified by the protesters,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio program on Thursday. “There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence.… I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual Tea Party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.” Limbaugh was echoing a sentiment expressed again and again by rioters: that this was the beginning of a second American Revolution.
Conservative cable networks made excuses on behalf of the rioters, bolstering their sense of entitlement, while continuing to spread conspiracy theories. They have suggested that those who perpetrated violence in the Capitol were actually members of antifa. (This is particularly ridiculous given that most weren’t wearing masks and have been very easy to identify.) The violence has also been excused as nothing compared to what occurred over the summer at anti–police brutality protests. Ashli Babbit, the woman who was shot during the riot and later died, was mourned by Carlson for looking normal and “pretty much like everyone else,” in contrast to the “pasty” black-clad anarchists lighting fires over the summer. (The word “pasty” insulated Carlson from the point he was actually making—that Babbit was white.)
These networks have done zero soul-searching. They continue to feed their viewers propaganda and conspiracy theories, and insist that the violence was understandable given the unwillingness of the courts to bend to bogus evidence of voter fraud. The protesters are described as good people who are fed up for good reasons. “At the end of the day, most Trump supporters love law enforcement,” anchor Rob Schmitt said on Newsmax. “[They’re] not the sort of people that are going to go into the Capitol and start ripping things down.”
“At least Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others have acknowledged they have some responsibility for the content they host and they have very clearly posted community guidelines on their websites for all to see,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. “Why do we expect any less of TV companies?” For the moment, little of the pressure that has been applied to tech companies has been leveled at TV companies like Comcast and Verizon. Tech companies are under fire, with Facebook and Twitter and others shifting their approach to the president and his supporters. But on cable news and right-wing radio, nothing has changed.