A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
We are one America split into two almost completely separate media worlds. That should be the starting point for discussions about the country’s political dynamics and media diets.
This new survey by one of my favorite groups, the Public Religion Research Institute, underscores the point. “We asked who’s to blame for the violence on January 6, now that some time has passed,” the group said. “Most of the country blames white supremacist groups, Donald Trump, and conservative media that spreads misinformation. Except Republicans.”
Republicans, generally speaking, blame Antifa and other left-wing activists for January 6, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. “But not all Republicans,” PRRI said -— “it matters what media they consume. In this case, those who trust broadcast news look much more like the rest of the country. Fox News and far-right news Republicans drive the trend.”
These same media consumers tend to believe (or pretend) that President Biden lost the election and Trump won, a view that Trump constantly tries to reaffirm. Adherence to QAnon conspiracy thinking is also a factor in this, as the new survey showed.
So right now, we live in one America, two media worlds, with barely any overlapping space. As Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI, said, the new findings are “disturbing” for democracy.
One of the results is the ugly fence protecting the Capitol ahead of Saturday’s right-wing rally.
Trying to rewrite history
“In less than 48 hours in Washington, D.C., there will be a rally of supporters of the former president who are now trying to rewrite the history of what happened on January 6,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said Thursday night. “It’s a rally in support of those now being prosecuted for their roles in the attack, and it seeks to portray many of those being prosecuted as somehow political prisoners.”
Security agencies are taking the rally very seriously. The US Capitol grounds are again encircled by a fence and other precautionary measures. And “according to information obtained by CNN,” Cooper said, “the Department of Homeland Security is warning about the potential of violence not just on the day of this rally but the day before as well.” Saturday’s gatherings are probably going to be pretty small. But a pro-rioters rally near the scene of the original crime is objectively a big deal, which is why it’s so revealing that Fox didn’t mention it at all on Thursday. Not a single time. It came up once on Wednesday night, when host Laura Ingraham suggested the rally was irrelevant; then mocked the security “hysteria;” and said other media outlets were “fearmongering” about it.
Meanwhile, over on One America News Wednesday night, one of the rally organizers was saying that media attention is an explicit goal: Previous attempts to hold rallies supporting January 6 “political prisoners” were “largely ignored,” Matt Braynard said, so “now we’ve gone to the one place that the media in this country cannot ignore us.”
The dilemma for newsrooms
Whatever transpires on Saturday will likely be small-scale -— nothing like the March for Life or the Women’s March or other magnets for social action. Trump will not be encouraging people to attend. He’s been “echoing the messaging of the potential rally goers,” Politico’s Myah Ward noted, while he also said in an interview with The Federalist that it’s “a setup.”
Regardless, the antidemocratic currents are real. The GOP base’s emotions are real. And “if the goal of the rally this weekend is to elevate a sympathetic view of the rioters, it doesn’t really matter if it fails. After all, that elevation is already happening in the attention-seeking right-wing media ecosystem,” Philip Bump wrote for the Washington Post on Thursday.
Earlier this week Politico’s Olivia Beavers quoted a GOP lawmaker from a safe red seat, speaking anonymously, conveying what he hears from constituents: “The majority of the Republican base feels that Jan. 6 was justified. And because those people didn’t have arms, they shouldn’t be incarcerated right now.” The lawmaker added: “Every day, I hear the word ‘Civil War’ — every day.” That’s the story.
‘Softening the ground’
Let’s drill down deeper on the PRRI data. Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent said “the poll’s big finding is that people who rely heavily on Fox News and other right-wing media are overwhelmingly more likely to believe the election was stolen from Trump — and are overwhelmingly less likely to blame Trump for the insurrection — than those who do not.”
Sargent argues that those views, taken together, “add up to something truly toxic: The ‘belief’ that the election was stolen, and the simultaneous refusal to assign accountability for an effort to violently overthrow our constitutional order, suggest right-wing propaganda may be softening the ground for a more concerted abandonment of democracy going forward.”
In the months since the Capitol attack, MAGA media sources have spent comparatively little time covering the aftermath: The arrests, the prosecutions, the threats of further violence. Ingraham, the 10 p.m. host on Fox News, is a perfect example: She has sought to downplay the significance of the riot and distance the rest of the Republican party from its most extreme elements.
But the dearth of riot fallout coverage in right-wing media means that there hasn’t been an honest reckoning with what happened or who is responsible. The riot isn’t a past-tense story, as much as MAGA media might want it to be. “It remains excruciatingly real for the people who were there,” as this new set of interviews by the NYT demonstrates.
And the continuing threat to democracy is a present-tense story, as well. Daniel Dale’s newest story for CNN illustrates that: “Swing state by swing state,” Trump is trying “to get people who tried to overturn the 2020 election chosen to be in charge of the 2024 election.”