Networks Hustle to Cover Capitol Coup

A lone Trump supporter holds a flag outside the U.S. Capitol Jan. 7, 2021 in Washington, DC.
(Image credit: (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images))

TV news was ready for a hectic, and historic, day Jan. 6, with Congress scheduled to certify Joe Biden’s presidential election, President Trump addressing his diehard supporters on the Ellipse and a pair of Democrats winning their blockbuster Senate races in Georgia. But news gatherers turned to a different story, one that will be a dark part of American history for the length of our lifetimes, when bedlam broke loose at the Capitol. 

The Congressional session to certify the Electoral College votes began at 1 p.m., as many networks covered the affair. A little after 2 p.m. Wolf Blitzer said on CNN that “protestors are getting assertive” as Trump supporters approached the Capitol following the president’s speech near the White House. 

Viewership picked up as the mob entered the historic building. Barricades were pushed past, doors were smashed with metal rods and windows were broken. Reporters mentioned that shots were fired. 

Blitzer’s colleague Jake Tapper called it “a disgraceful moment in American history.”

As the violence progressed, anchors and reporters struggled to find the proper verbiage--insurrection, sedition--for the transgressions happening before them. “It is hard not to look at this and not feel that there is at least, and not to be hyperbolic, but to feel there are some elements of a coup attempt in what we’re watching right now,” said NBC News anchor Lester Holt. 

At 4:30 p.m., President Trump released a video, reiterating that the election was stolen, but urging his supporters to head home. “I know your pain, I know you’re hurt,” Trump said. “But you have to go home now, we have to have peace. We have to have law and order, we have to respect our great people in law and order.”

On Fox News, Bill Hemmer anchored coverage through 6 p.m., when Bret Baier took over. Congressional correspondent Chad Pergram said, “This is the most significant breach of an American government institution since the Battle of Bladensburg -- Aug. 24th, 1814, when the British came and burned the Capitol and also burned the White House. We have never had an instance of an incursion inside the U.S. Capitol building to this degree since that time. Let's be clear, the mob upended American democracy today as they try to count the Electoral College.”

The broadcast nets went live in primetime. On CBS News, anchor Norah O’Donnell went live at 10 p.m. “An angry mob of supporters of President Trump convened on the U.S. Capitol, overwhelming law enforcement,” she said. “This is an image inside what is called the Capitol Crypt. As those supporting the president sought to storm the House and Senate chambers, but what can only be viewed as an attempt to not only to thwart the democratic process but also an effort incited by the president of the United States to try one last effort to overturn the presidential election.”

CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett added, “This has to be the breaking point. This has to be the moment with which Republicans of conscience say this and no more. Not one inch more. We are done.”

On Newsmax, Bernard Kerik suggested the riot was not that big a deal, according to the NY Times. “You have six to 10 people who entered the building,” he said. “OK, deal with it.”

The Capitol coup remained a massive story the morning of January 7. The networks reported that VP Mike Pence banged his gavel close to 4 a.m., concluding the Congressional proceedings. They also reported that four had died in the melee, including a woman who was shot by a U.S. Capitol Police officer. “What a dark day we are in right now after this assault on the heart of our democracy,” said ABC News White House correspondent Cecilia Vega. “Joe Biden’s win, finally official.” 

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, calling what happened “a national disgrace.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar  appeared on CBS This Morning. “It is a tipping point for these people that have stood by [Trump] for way too long, allowed him to go after people, divide people,” she said. “And finally, last night, when they saw the fruits of everything they had done and all of the enabling literally invading the temple of our democracy, desecrating it right in front of their eyes.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.