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The insurrection at the Capitol challenged how US media frames unrest and shapes public opinion

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John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity, and Equality, University of Minnesota
Danielle K. Kilgo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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The chaos at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday wasn’t typical. Nor was the coverage.
Footage carried live by cable news and clips and photos shared across social media were jolting. One image showed a man who had broken into the building sitting in a chair, foot on desk, in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. A video clip showed a crowd chasing a police officer as he retreated up the stairs.
As a researcher of media and social movements, I was absorbed by the violent events that unfolded. My research on protests shows that how the media portrays unrest – as riot or resistance, for example – helps shape the public’s view of the protest’s aims. Typically news coverage pays more attention to disruptive tactics than to the aims of protesters, especially when it comes to anti-Black racism protests or action that radically challenges the status quo.
By focusing on the disruption while underreporting the protest’s substance, agendas and goals, coverage contributes to a “hierarchy of social struggle” in which the voices of some advocacy groups are lifted over others.
But this was different. News audiences aren’t necessarily used to seeing violence and disruption at citizen demonstrations in support of a president – and certainly not on the scale we witnessed on Wednesday at the Capitol. It proved a novel test of how the news media would frame the unrest and the aims of those involved.
Traditional news media have come under heavy criticism for their coverage of civil rights protests, most recently after the death of George Floyd. A study of demonstrations between 1967 and 2007 concluded that protests were often framed as public nuisances, especially when those doing the protesting were ideologically liberal. Conservative protests were less likely to be seen as nuisances. And my research has highlighted the tendency to frame anti-Black racism protests as “riots” more than other protests.
But much of the coverage of events at the Capitol stripped euphemistic labels like “protests,” “rallies” and “demonstrations” from their description of what was going on.
Instead news media labeled the event as a “siege” or “insurrection” carried out by a “mob.”
It is also notable that at least one major network, CNN, described the events as “terrorism” – a term still more common in descriptions of Muslims and people of color than white supremacists.
In my work, I call for journalists to balance their attention to protester actions with the reasons and grievances that brought the demonstrator out onto the streets in the first place – and reflect this in their reporting. This balance usually skews toward the actions, especially when those actions involve violence or damage to property or when there are confrontations with police.
Despite the escalation of events from protest to insurrection, the initial coverage Wednesday seemed to include the grievances of those taking part.
Coverage also focused on police behavior, but it appeared more concerned with the lack of policing. Police didn’t show up in riot gear or wielding batons as Trump supporters ascended the Capitol steps. There were no tanks, or large-caliber rifles on display as protesters arrived.
This too was different from other protests. Many have commented on social media that if these had been Black Lives Matter protesters, there might have been a very different outcome – the assumption being Trump-sponsored insurrections are treated differently by authorities.
Some news media outlets, such as USAToday, made this comparative difference clear in their reporting. This is not a typical narrative in mainstream protest news coverage.
Even the initial news coverage by Fox News seemed largely in line with the framing of other news channels, until the evening, when commentary from the “Tucker Carlson Tonight” show shifted the network’s narrative.
Carlson’s monologue on Wednesday evening half-addressed the siege, but asked the audience to consider why people like Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot and killed during the break-in, attended the rally in the first place. Detailing her tragic death, Tucker said, “She bore no resemblance to the angry children we have seen wrecking our cities in recent months.” Carlson used this to transition to his critique of liberal leaders and the election results.
Some may dismiss Carlson’s comments as irrelevant and radical. However, his framing provides insight about how the right-wing media has sought to portray certain protests in recent years, and the consequences of that action.
My colleague from Michigan State University Rachel Mourão and I have used panel survey data from 2015 and 2016 to explore attitudes about protests in general and Black Lives Matter’s core grievances specifically. The results showed that increased consumption of news from right-wing organizations like Fox and Breitbart didn’t really affect people’s views about protests generally. But it did strongly correlate with more negative opinions about some of the core grievances and demands connected with Black Lives Matter.
More evidence lies in other popular right-wing media. Their framing doesn’t accentuate the unrest’s violent actions carried out by an angry mob at all.
Less than 24 hours after the siege, the homepage of right-wing outlet One America News Network’s (OAN) website was devoid of any pictures of protests. Meanwhile, Breitbart had a Mark Zuckerberg image front and center. That article described how Facebook had “blacklisted” Trump after the “events” on Capitol Hill.
Right-wing media not only distort the realities of the insurrection, they undermine and erase the impact of such undemocratic actions. Out of sight, out of mind.
These are starkly different realities from the websites of news outlets such as ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN, as well as newspaper front pages – both online and in print – from around the country.
In recent months, some news organizations have vowed to address shortcomings in their coverage, including how reporters cover protests. If the unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd was the event that triggered a welcomed media reckoning, then the insurrection at the Capitol could be the event that helps outlets better understand why framing is important.
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I spoke to 99 big thinkers about what our ‘world after coronavirus’ might look like – this is what I learned

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Dean, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University
Adil Najam does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Back in March, my colleagues at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University thought that it might be useful to begin thinking about “the day after coronavirus.” For a research center dedicated to longer-term thinking, it made sense to ask what our post-COVID-19 world might look like.
In the months that followed, I learned many things. Most importantly, I learned there is no “going back to normal.”
The project took on a life of its own. Over 190 days, we released 103 videos. Each was around five minutes long, with one simple question: How might COVID-19 impact our future? Watch the full video series here.
I interviewed leading thinkers on 101 distinct topics – from money to debt, supply chains to trade, work to robots, journalism to politics, water to food, climate change to human rights, e-commerce to cybersecurity, despair to mental health, gender to racism, fine arts to literature, and even hope and happiness.
My interviewees included the president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a former CIA director, a former NATO supreme allied commander, a former prime minister of Italy and Britain’s astronomer royal.
I “Zoomed” – the word had become a verb almost overnight – with Kishore Mahbubani in Singapore, Yolanda Kakabadse in Quito, Judith Butler in Berkeley, California, Alice Ruhweza in Nairobi and Jeremy Corbyn in London. For our very last episode, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined from Seoul.
For me, it was truly a season of learning. Among other things, it helped me understand why COVID-19 is not a storm that we can just wait out. Our pre-pandemic world was anything but normal, and our post-pandemic world will not be like going back to normal at all. Here are four reasons why.
Just as people with preexisting medical conditions are most susceptible to the virus, the global impact of the crisis will accelerate preexisting transitions. As Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer highlights, a year of a global pandemic can pack in a decade or more of disruption as usual.
For example, Phil Baty from “Times Higher Education” warns that universities will change “profoundly [and] forever,” but mostly because the higher education sector was already screaming for change.
Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Ann Marie Lipinski arrives at the same prognosis for journalism, and Princeton economist Atif Mian worries similarly for structural global debt.
At Harvard, trade policy expert Dani Rodrik thinks the pandemic is hastening the “retreat from hyperglobalization” that was already in train before COVID-19. And Pardee School economist Perry Mehrling is convinced that “society will be transformed permanently … and returning to status quo ante is, I think, not possible.”
While the clouds over the global economy are ominous – with even the usually optimistic Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Angus Deaton worrying we might be entering a dark phase that takes “20 to 30 years before we see progress” – it is political commentators who seem most perplexed.
Stanford University’s political theorist Francis Fukuyama confesses he has “never seen a period in which the degree of uncertainty as to what the world will look like politically is greater than it is today.”
COVID-19 has underscored fundamental questions about government competence, the rise of populist nationalism, sidelining of expertise, decline of multilateralism and even the idea of liberal democracy itself. None of our experts – not one – expects politics anywhere to become less turbulent than it was pre-pandemic.
Geopolitically, this manifests itself in what the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Graham Allison, calls an “underlying, fundamental, structural, Thucydidean rivalry” in which a rapidly rising new power, China, threatens to displace the established power, the United States. COVID-19 accelerated and intensified this great power rivalry with ramifications across Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
Not all turbulence, however, is unwelcome.
Across sectors, expert after expert told me that habits developed during the pandemic won’t go away – and not just the habits of Zoom and working from home.
Robin Murphy, engineering professor at Texas A&M University, is convinced that “we are going to have robots everywhere” as a result of COVID-19. That’s because they became so pervasive during the pandemic for deliveries, COVID-19 tests, automated services and even home use.
We hear from both Karen Antman, dean of Boston University’s School of Medicine, and Adil Haider, dean of medicine at Aga Khan University in Pakistan, that telemedicine is here to stay.
Vala Afshar, chief digital evangelist at Salesforce software company, goes even further. He argues that in the post-COVID-19 world “every business will be[come] a digital business” and will have to take a great deal of its commerce, interactions and workforce online.
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Science journalist Laurie Garrett, who has warned about global epidemics for decades, imagines an opportunity to address the injustices of our economic and societal systems. Because “there will not be a single activity that goes on as it once did,” she says, there is also the possibility of fundamental restructuring in the upheaval.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the pandemic could become a wake-up call that makes people realize that “crisis and disaster are real possibilities” but can be averted.
They are not alone in this thinking. Economist Thomas Piketty recognizes the dangers of rising nationalism and inequality, but hopes we learn “to invest more in the welfare state.” He says “COVID will reinforce the legitimacy for public investments in [health systems] and infrastructure.”
Former Environmental Minister of Ecuador Yolanda Kakabadse similarly believes that the world will recognize that “ecosystem health equals human health,” and focus new attention on the environment. And military historian Andrew Bacevich would like to see a conversation about “the definition of national security in the 21st century.”
Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, is awestruck at the extraordinary amount of money that was mobilized to respond to this global crisis. He wonders if the world might become less stingy about the much smaller amounts needed to combat climate change before it is irreversible and catastrophic.
Ultimately, I think Noam Chomsky, one of the most important public intellectuals of our times, summed it up best. “We need to ask ourselves what world will come out of this,” he said. “What is the world we want to live in?”
John Prandato, communications specialist at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, was series editor for the video project and contributed to this essay.
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The Confederate battle flag, which rioters flew inside the US Capitol, has long been a symbol of white insurrection

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Assistant Professor of Geography, Columbus State University
Jordan Brasher does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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Confederate soldiers never reached the Capitol during the Civil War. But the Confederate battle flag was flown by rioters in the U.S. Capitol building for the first time ever on Jan. 6.
The flag’s prominence in the Capitol riot comes as no surprise to those who, like me, know its history: Since its debut during the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag has been flown regularly by white insurrectionists and reactionaries fighting against rising tides of newly won Black political power.
The infamous diagonal blue cross with white stars on a red background was never the Confederacy’s official symbol. The Confederacy’s original “stars and bars” design was too similar to the U.S. flag, which led to confusion on the battlefields, where troop positions were marked by flags.
The official flag went through a series of changes in attempts to distinguish Confederate from Union troops. The Confederacy would ultimately adopt the “Southern Cross” as its battle flag – cementing it as a symbol of white insurrection. While it is technically the battle flag, it has been used the most, and therefore has become known more generally as the Confederate flag.
Six decades before the Nazi swastika became an instantly recognizable symbol of white supremacists, the Confederate battle flag flew over the forces of the insurgent Confederate States of America – military troops organized in revolt against the idea that the federal government could outlaw slavery.
The founding documents of the Confederacy make its goals of white supremacy and preservation of slavery explicitly clear. In March 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared of the Confederacy, “its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
The documents drafted by seceding states make this same point. Mississippi’s declaration, for instance, was very specific: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”
After the Civil War, Confederate veterans groups used the flag at their meetings to commemorate fallen soldiers, but otherwise the flag mostly disappeared from public life.
After World War II, though, the flag surfaced as part of a backlash against racial integration.
Black soldiers who fought discrimination abroad experienced discrimination when they came home. Racist violence against Black veterans who had returned from battle prompted President Harry Truman to issue an executive order desegregating the military and banning discrimination in federal hiring. Truman also asked Congress to pass a federal ban on lynching, one of nearly 200 unsuccessful attempts to do so.
In 1948, the retaliation for Truman’s integration efforts came, and the Confederate battle flag resurfaced as a symbol of white supremacist public intimidation.
That year, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Democrat, ran for president as the leader of a new political party of segregationist Southern Democrats, nicknamed the “Dixiecrats.” At their rallies and riots, they opposed Truman’s integration under the banner of the Confederate battle flag.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, white Southerners flew the Confederate battle flag at riots – including violent ones – to oppose racial integration, especially in schools. For example, in 1962, white students at the University of Mississippi hoisted it at a riot defying James Meredith’s enrollment as the university’s first Black student.
It took the deployment of 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals and National Guardsmen to get Meredith to class after the violent race riot left two dead. Historian William Doyle called the riot – which featured the Confederate battle flag at its center – an “American insurrection.”
More recently, the Black Lives Matter era has seen an increase in violent incidents involving the Confederate battle flag. It has now featured prominently in at least three recent major violent events carried out by people on the far right.
In 2015, a white supremacist who had posed with the Confederate battle flag online killed nine Black parishioners during a prayer meeting at their church.
In 2017, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists carried the battle flag when they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, seeking to prevent the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. One white supremacist drove his car through a crowd of anti-racist counterprotestors, killing Heather Heyer.
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At the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, an image of an insurrectionist toting the Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol building arguably distills the siege’s dark historical context. In the background of the photo are the portraits of two Civil War-era U.S. senators – one an ardent proponent of slavery and the other an abolitionist once beaten unconscious for his views on the Senate floor.
The flag has always represented white resistance to increasing Black power. It may be a coincidence of exact timing, but certainly not of context, that the riot happened the day after Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won U.S. Senate seats representing Georgia. Respectively, they are the first Black and first Jewish senators from the former Confederate state. Warnock will be only the second Black senator from below the Mason-Dixon Line since Reconstruction.
Their historic victories – and President-elect Joe Biden’s – in Georgia happened through large-scale organizing and turnout of people of color, especially Black people. Since 2014, nearly 2 million voters have been added to the rolls in Georgia, signaling a new bloc of Black voting power.
It should come as no surprise, then, that today’s white insurrectionists opposed to the shifting tides of power identify with the Confederate battle flag.
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Misogyny in the Capitol: Among the insurrectionists, a lot of angry men who don’t like women

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Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Women & Politics Ph.D. Program, Rutgers University
Mona Lena Krook received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York that helped fund the research for her book, Violence against Women in Politics (Oxford University Press, 2020).
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Among the various forms of violence on display during the U.S. Capitol insurrection, one has been largely overlooked: misogyny, or hatred toward women. Yet behaviors and symbols of white male power were striking and persistent features of the riots.
Members of the overwhelmingly male crowds defending a president well-known for his sexist attacks, embraced male supremacist ideologies, wore military gear and bared their chests in shows of masculine bravado. They even destroyed display cabinets holding historical books on women in politics.
Actions targeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi give the clearest illustration. Members of the mob broke into her office and vandalized it. Items like mail, signs and even her lectern proved to be particularly popular trophies – symbolizing an attack on Democrats and the House Speaker, but also against one of the most powerful women in American politics.
While partisan differences often drive political violence, misogyny can play an underappreciated role, especially when directed at women in prominent leadership positions. Misogyny punishes women who fail to live up to patriarchal standards, like those who dare to participate in the supposedly “male world” of politics.
In my new book, “Violence against Women in Politics,” I illustrate what this problem looks like around the world. In addition to physical harm, such violence can include threats, property damage and sexist rhetoric and imagery intended to intimidate women and delegitimize their political participation.
Attacks on Pelosi, while partisan in nature, also contained many elements of misogyny.
Pelosi was in physical danger as pro-Trump rioters roamed the Capitol building hunting down elected officials. News cameras filmed a man carrying zip-tie handcuffs entering and then exiting the speaker’s office, where members of her staff remained barricaded in a room for more than two hours.
Acts of vandalism and theft were accompanied by speech disparaging and belittling Pelosi as a woman. In the hallway outside her suite of offices, angry rioters tore the leadership nameplate off the wall as crowds chanted, “Get her out!”
In a video, a woman claimed she helped break down the door to Pelosi’s office. Once inside, “somebody stole her gavel and I took a picture sitting in the chair flipping off the camera.” She proudly announced “and that was for Fox News” – a station notorious not just for its far-right politics, but also for its on- and off-camera sexism.
A photo of Richard “Bigo” Barnett, sitting with his feet up on a desk in Pelosi’s office, solicited perhaps the strongest reaction. One feminist writer asked, “Have you ever seen a clearer photo of arrogant male entitlement? The legs apart, the foot on the desk, the smile … this guy isn’t just happy he’s broken into the Capitol building. He feels like he’s putting a woman in her place by violating and defiling her space.”
Consistent with this interpretation, Barnett later told a reporter: “I wrote her a nasty note, put my feet up on her desk, and scratched my balls.” The message read: “Nancy, Bigo was here you bitch.”
Another paper left on the desk amplified this message, warning in red ink: “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN.”
Gendered slurs similarly appear in one of the first cases pursued by the FBI stemming from the riot.
Cleveland Meredith was charged with unregistered possession of firearms and unlawful possession of ammunition. FBI agents also discovered misogynistic text messages on his mobile phone threatening violence against Pelosi, like “Thinking about heading over to Pelosi C**T’s speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on live TV,” “I’m gonna run that C**T Pelosi over,” and “Dead Bitch Walking.”
Misogyny in the Capitol attacks indicates that rioters, both male and female, did not simply wage an assault on democratic institutions. They also sought to violently restore a retrograde world in which men, especially white men, hold all the power.
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