Press targeted by pro-Trump insurrectionists during attack on US Capitol

On Jan. 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump, seeking to overturn the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, stormed the U.S. Capitol. The mob killed a Capitol Police officer and threatened the lives of lawmakers, who were forced to take shelter after rioters smashed windows and broke down doors to breach the halls of Congress. Amid the insurrection, Trump supporters also targeted journalists, launching insults, issuing threats, and destroying their equipment. Photos and videos of the assaults circulated quickly on social media. Press organizations condemned the attacks, calling for swift investigations into the incidents.

Key Player

Former President Donald Trump repeatedly called the press “the enemy of the people” and regularly blasted major news organizations as the “fake news media.” A Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) study, published Apr. 16, 2020, concluded that Trump had destroyed “the credibility of the press, dangerously undermining truth and consensus.” From June 2015 to January 2021–until the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account was permanently suspended Jan. 8–the president attacked news organizations in some 2,500 tweets. In addition, Trump attempted to bar reporters from the White House, called for boycotts of news organizations, and threatened regulatory and legal action against The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN for what he deemed to be unfavorable coverage. Polling published by Gallup on Sept. 30, 2020, showed that while only 6% of Democrats do not trust the “mass media” at all, 58% of Republicans distrust them completely — a 10% increase from 2019. 

Further Details

“Murder the Media” was scrawled on an indoor doorway at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and rioters yelled CNN sucks!” and “Traitors!” as they stomped on thousands of dollars’ worth of Associated Press equipment. Someone fashioned a noose out of camera cables and hung it from a tree on the Capitol grounds. MSNBC anchor Yasmin Vossoughian said she and her crew wore clothing free of MSNBC or NBC insignia to avoid being targeted by President Trump’s supporters, according to The New York Times.

“We knew there might be pushback, some hostility toward us,” she said, “because, as you well know, the president is continuously talking about the fake news media and telling people not to trust the media.”

Bloomberg News reporter William Turton captured on video the moment that rioters at the Capitol began to attack a group of reporters and their equipment, yelling, “Fuck the mainstream media!” Erin Schaff, a photojournalist at The New York Times, was cornered by a group of men who snatched her press ID, threw her to the ground, and stole one of her cameras. Rioters grabbed Associated Press photographer John Minchillo by the backpack, pulled him down a flight of stairs, then pushed him over a ledge. The crowd stopped only when a man wearing a red Trump hat pushed them back. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, a photojournalist on assignment for The Washington Post, said three different people threatened to shoot her that day. One man told her, “I’m coming back with a gun tomorrow, and I’m coming for you.” 

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents attacks against reporters and the media, said it was investigating 15 attacks and three arrests or detentions of journalists across the United States on Jan. 6. 

Two Washington Post reporters, Zoeann Murphy and Whitney Leaming, were temporarily detained by Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police while covering the riot. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) declared a state of emergency in response to the violence, ordering a citywide curfew, though the declaration exempted journalists. According to Murphy, the two journalists were entrapped by officers attempting to prevent a group of rioters violating curfew from evading arrest.


Advocacy groups call for accountability, denounce violence

Press freedom advocacy organizations issued statements condemning the targeting of journalists and calling for those who perpetrated harm against members of the media to be held accountable.

CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna said the violence leveled at the press during the riot “has no place in a democracy” and demanded that those who threatened and assaulted journalists “be held accountable for their actions.”

In a Jan. 7, 2021, statement, Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the attack on the Capitol “posed a grave threat to our democracy.” 

Brown added that the rioters’ attacks on the media posed “a dire threat to those working tirelessly to bring information to our communities, but also to the press freedom that is a bedrock value of our nation.”

Anna Nelson, executive director of Reporters Without Borders USA, called the accounts from journalists present at the Capitol “chilling.”

“We condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms and urge the authorities to hold alleged aggressors accountable,” Nelson said. “We call on everyone to respect press freedom and to ensure journalists are allowed to safely carry out their vital work.”

Top federal prosecutor promises to investigate attacks on journalists 

Michael Sherwin, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, vowed to take action against those who targeted reporters during the attack on the Capitol. In a statement released Jan. 12, 2021, he said his office, which is leading investigations and prosecutions following the Capitol attack, “will spare no effort to bring to justice all those who committed lawless and violent acts of any kind, including against members of the media.”

“We are resolutely committed to upholding the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, including speech, peaceful assembly, and press, and we will investigate, prosecute, and hold accountable anyone who attempts to obstruct or curtail these freedoms through violence or intimidation,” the statement read.

During a press conference on Jan. 12, Sherwin announced he had established a strike force of prosecutors to focus on investigating and prosecuting assaults against the press during the riot.