The scenes presented on Wednesday’s TV schedule looked like something out of a Hollywood movie: insurrectionists and insurgents surrounding the U.S. Capitol building in an effort to countermand the certification of a presidential election.
But the pictures weren’t showing up on networks like HBO or FX, which regularly present movies and high drama. The shocking sights were instead being transmitted by the nation’s TV news outlets in real time, forcing scores of broadcast and cable news journalists to scramble to cover the attack that involved many of their own.
Journalists from every major outlet were among those caught up on the terror within the House and Senate chambers as violent rioters stormed the building, breaking windows and looting offices. Reporters caught inside the Capitol delivered reportage and photos of the shocking sight of members of Congress crouching down in fear on the floor of the House and Senate, and Capitol police with guns drawn trying to prevent a violent mob from breaking into the chambers.
“This is the nightmare scenario,” said Norah O’Donnell, anchor of “CBS Evening News.”
NBC News’ Kasie Hunt, for example, was inside the facility, as were Haley Talbot and Frank Thorp, two producers. Meanwhile, on ABC News, anchor George Stephanopoulos asked global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz if she felt endangered from a position she had outside the U.S. Capitol.
In a surreal moment, the major broadcast networks broke into regularly scheduled daytime programming to relay a shocking scenes of President Trump’s supporters overrunning law enforcement stationed outside the building. Cable-news outlets, already primed to cover what was expected to be a protest by Republican lawmakers during the certification process, found themselves pivoting to something much more shocking.
“This is violence that has been inspired by President Trump, by President Trump’s supporters,” said Jake Tapper on CNN, speaking over a scene of people climbing over part of a door to gain entry to the Capitol complex. “It is a disgraceful moment in American history.”
Several news outlets moved from using the word “protest” to describe the scene to relying on darker terms. CNN in one of its bottom of the screen chyrons labeled the movement an “insurrection” and its participants a “pro-Trump mob.” Quoting Vice President Mike Pence, Fox News labeled the action an “attack.” CBS News and NBC News continued to refer to the crowd as “protesters” in on-screen graphics, illustrating the tightrope big mainstream outlets walk as they try to portray real-time events without using charged language.
But broadcast-network anchors and correspondents were clearly taken aback. “As we watch this extraordinary situation play out, 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 Lester Holt during an NBC News special report.
“Let’s be clear, the mob upended American democracy today as they try to count the Electoral College,” said Chad Pergram, a congressional correspondent for Fox News Channel, during coverage. But Fox News still drew immediate criticism for the tenor of some of its coverage and guests, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who sought to downplay the significance of the violence.
Networks braced for a long night of work after Congressional leaders opted to resume the election certification process after the Capitol was determined to be clear around 6 p.m. ET. Democratic senators Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, Dick Durbin, Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska were among the early speakers who condemned the bedlam earlier in the day.
Both NBC and ABC quickly rearranged their primetime lineups on Wednesday to make room for special news coverage of the insurrection and its aftermath and the electoral certification session.
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.