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Q&A: Media Matters’ Bobby Lewis talks insurrection, white supremacy, and the media

'Whatever happens, the media should remember that our democracy itself came under attack on January 6th.'
Tina Vásquez January 19th, 2021
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A wooden gallows with a noose stands with the US Capitol building visible in the background.

In the media ecosphere, researchers may be among the most undervalued players in the industry—especially those who focus on “opposition research,” which is the practice of collecting information on opponents. For Bobby Lewis, this means studying, tracking, and analyzing the many strands of conservative misinformation in the U.S. that threaten our multiracial democracy. Since 2016, Lewis has been a researcher at Media Matters, a progressive research and information center that monitors misinformation in the U.S. media. In practice, Lewis’ job requires that he monitor everything from far-right message boards to Fox News and mainstream print outlets.

During the Trump administration, Lewis’ primary focus has been the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends, which he says has functioned as “an informal morning briefing” for President Donald Trump that influenced countless policy decisions and in turn, dominated almost every media cycle. Lewis’ work monitoring Fox & Friends and other conservative media gave him tremendous insight into the right-wing narratives that were pushed in the days leading up to and following Jan. 6 when on live television, Trump supporters attempted to carry out a coup in the U.S. Capitol and overturn the results of the election. 

The American public is still processing what happened, and the media is grappling with how to accurately report on the people who stormed the Capitol in an attempted coup. While the actions of these Trump supporters were deadly, recent reporting makes it clear that it could have been worse. As we head into Inauguration Day and potentially more white supremacist violence, Prism spoke to Lewis about the the language and framing journalists should consider when covering these events, the historical precedence for racial terrorism, and what to expect from the Republican Party post-Trump. Our interview has been condensed and edited.

Tina Vasquez: Many media outlets still seem to be grappling with what language to use to describe the events of Jan. 6. As a researcher, how are you thinking about it or articulating what we saw at the Capitol?

Bobby Lewis: “Insurrection” is an appropriate term for what happened, as is “attempted coup.” Simply put, a group of pro-Trump extremists attacked the U.S. Capitol to stop Congress from certifying an election that Trump fairly lost. Insurrectionists fought police officers to gain control of the building—even murdering one of them—and planted bombs at the Republican and Democratic national committees. Regardless of any other variables, there’s no question that an insurrection against the federal government took place on Jan. 6. As researchers, we watched it unfold on live TV, and more videos are still all over social media. But if you were watching right-wing media, the attempt to downplay insurrection began immediately. Fox’s news division said, “[I]t’s not like it’s a siege,” there was “no vandalism” (aside from all the vandalism), and the “peaceful” gathering was “a huge victory” for the insurrectionists.

Vasquez: As a journalist, I’m really struggling with the mainstream media's continued assertion that Trump supporters descended on the Capitol because they believed their president when he said the election was stolen. That may be true in many instances, but it also seems clear that so many of Trump's supporters simply did not like the results of the election. But perhaps neither of these narratives are accurate or helpful? What is the most responsible way to report on why these people invaded the Capitol?

Lewis: The first thing to keep in mind is that, as we all saw last week, an insurrection took place. Every individual on the National Mall that day isn’t guilty of trying to overthrow democracy, but there were more than enough bad actors to mount a serious, violent attack on Congress, which came seconds from meeting its targets face-to-face with weapons and zip ties. That’s the most important thing that happened that afternoon. Attacking Congress is attacking our democracy, and given the United States’ rich history of violent white supremacists overthrowing democracy, we should remain focused on that threat above all else.

Those who attended the rallies on the National Mall were deluded, by right-wing media and the president, into believing the election was stolen and Trump actually won. At a minimum, the prevalence of those false claims created a space that allowed the rally and the violence to happen. In either case, it’s another symptom of our country’s depressingly vast information crisis, where tens of millions of Americans believe that our sources for information about the world are “fake news,” a belief which is ironically often based on exaggerated or false claims from unreliable sources they loyally trust.

Vasquez: Broadly, the media tends to convey surprise when right wing movements have a show of force and there is little articulation of how it was a clear escalation of the rhetoric and conduct that’s been building over the last few years or that there is historical precedent for how white people behave in this country. We've heard that the Capitol was "unprepared" for what happened. Tell me what you know about how openly this week's events were being planned.

Lewis: The attack on the Capitol was, at least in part, planned in public. For weeks, far-right users on Parler and Telegram were openly brimming with violent fantasies about Jan. 6 in Washington. We shouldn’t forget the role of the mainstream social media platforms either. While Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg claimed that the insurrectionist attacks were “largely” not organized on Facebook, our research found at least 70 “Stop the Steal” affiliated groups on that site—importantly, 46 of these were private groups, a type of group which Facebook has struggled to regulate before.

The “Stop the Steal” movement, led by far-right personality Ali Alexander—and reportedly organized with help from GOP Reps. Andy Biggs, Mo Brooks, and Paul Gosar—attracted many extremists to the protest that would become an insurrection. Infowars’ Alex Jones heavily promoted and raised funds for the Jan. 6 event with violent rhetoric. There were plenty of warning signs that the police missed, accidentally or otherwise—an open question, with  investigations underway into over a dozen officers—but it is clear that the Capitol Police force, like the rest of the government, doesn’t take the right-wing extremist threat as seriously as it should.

Immediately, the insurrection was an obvious escalation of Trump’s countless lies about voter fraud, which were reliably fed to him by Fox News, Newsmax, One America News, and others for months, even before the November election. In fact, right-wing media outlets have been lying about voter fraud and fearmongering about civil war for many years, so the groundwork for a violent rebellion has arguably been building on the right for a very long time. The precursors to insurrection fell together, more or less right in front of our eyes.

Vasquez: So this is an escalation of what we’ve seen over the last four years, but there is also historical precedence for this. I’ve been thinking about the Wilmington, North Carolina, insurrection.

Lewis: We do need to put the insurrection in a proper historical context. As Adam Serwer pointed out in The Atlantic, true democracy in the United States is not 244 years old—it’s only 55 years old, dating to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the vote (at least officially) to all Americans regardless of skin color. Prior to that we had Jim Crow, a system of racist governments throughout the South which established itself on the ashes of our brief attempts to enfranchise Black men (but not women) after the Civil War. The federal government had eventually lost interest in protecting Reconstruction governments, and in time they were all destroyed by white supremacist terrorism.

The era of our true democracy has culminated so far in a multiracial coalition electing the first Black president, Barack Obama—and then an overwhelmingly white coalition electing the man who built a political career on saying Obama was not American. And last week, this latter coalition stormed the Capitol in a violent attempt to keep its aggrieved leader in office. The insurrection was an expression of the systemically racist history of the country, much of which we also saw in racist coverage of Black Lives Matter protests. American white supremacy always strikes back after Black political achievement, and we already surrendered democracy to racist revanchism once before. It cannot happen again.

Vasquez: Over the course of the Trump administration, the media has reported on Trump supporters as if they are generally "working class" people with "economic anxieties," rather than racists who were moved by Trump’s rhetoric. The use of class status to elide a discussion of race is common, but as recent reporting has shown us, the insurrectionists came from all of the country and some were affluent—a fact mainstream media continues to appear surprised by. What are the characteristics of Trump supporters that you think are worth noting, what are the similarities his followers actually have?

Lewis: The most notable aspect of Trump support is a sense of grievance and anger over anything they feel has been taken from them. Since Trump himself is a perpetual victim, he cultivates this attitude in his followers as an us-vs.-them ethos in which he and his followers are fighting alone for good and everyone else—the establishment, the media, Democratic voters, anyone who gets in Trump’s way—is the enemy of the people. Conservative media focus this hatred into political action, sometimes in ways that betray their poorest supporters, such as lying that Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy improved wages. Clearly, this sort of grievance knows no economic boundaries. Accordingly, there are extremely poor and extremely wealthy Trump supporters, and they all agree that some often intangible thing has been taken from them and that whatever the problem, Trump will make it “great again.” 

Journalists should strongly resist the trap of assuming that Trump supporters, especially violent ones, are necessarily poor or uneducated. It strikes me as a holdover from the early days of Trumpism, when few in the media seemed to grasp the full picture of what was coming. It lends an embarrassing amount of accuracy to the Trumpist complaint that the media “doesn’t understand” them. And it’s a baffling mistake to make when we know Trump and his allies have had the support of a lot of the conservative intelligentsia and received plenty of donations from wealthy Americans. Also, the kind of tactical gear we saw on display in the Capitol attack is not cheap, much like highly customized AR-15s often seen at right-wing demonstrations. Lazy stereotyping helps nobody, and it actually hinders efforts to fully understand the white supremacist threat.

Vasquez: Leading up to the attempted coup, what were the most marked ways that right-wing media outlets fanned the flames of insurrection?

Lewis: Evidence has always shown that the results of the 2020 election were secure and accurate; there was never any credible reason to entertain the countless fraud claims. Yet in the run-up to Jan. 6, right-wing media kept pushing and entertaining “rigged election” claims in ways big and small, even down to not refusing to refer to President-elect Biden as “president-elect.” A violent attempt to overthrow the election may have found less popular support if right-wing media hadn’t poisoned the discourse with months, years, and even decades of baseless lies that widespread voter fraud steals elections, while also telling the audience that certifying the 2020 election is “the most dangerous assault on the very nature of America, certainly in our lifetime, and maybe since the previous Civil War.”

Vasquez: What did you find notable about right-wing media outlets' coverage or reframing of the coup, what are the narratives that Americans should be aware of—and how can they push back on them?

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Lewis: It was remarkable how quickly false claims spread that “antifa” was responsible for the Capitol attack. Before the mob had even left the building, people across social media began posting videos from Capitol Hill claiming that “antifa” went undercover as Trump supporters to start violence. Conservatives quote-tweeted coverage with assumptions or claims that antifa was responsible, and tried to match people in photos from the Capitol with people in photos from anti-fascist protests. The claim peaked with a Washington Times article “reporting” that facial recognition had proved “antifa” involvement, a false claim which was retracted, but not until after it spread through right-wing media and made it to Congress, thanks to Rep. Matt Gaetz.

If we don’t indulge further right-wing lies about George Soros or “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” it’s unclear who would execute this B-movie “antifa” infiltration plot, or to what end. Unfortunately, it’s easier to share lies than report the truth, and once the lie has spread, truth plays catch-up forever.

Another narrative Americans should be wary of is the suggestion that the country should just move on, couched in vague appeals to “unity” that deliberately avoid a full reckoning of the insurrection. Fox & Friends, perhaps the president’s favorite TV show, said that Trump should not be impeached because his supporters are “ready to explode” and a second impeachment could inflame them further. Republican officials, including some who encouraged the insurrection, similarly call for “unity” as a response to impeachment. But there can be no “unity” without consequences for those who endangered the republic. And history has shown us, over and over again, that a failed insurrection with no consequences is a trial run for eventual success.

Vasquez: The events of Jan. 6 and everything we’ve learned in the days since have really shown some of these right-wing movements for what they are. It’s never been about patriotism or religion or freedom of speech, but rather a white supremacist power grab. Could this in any way be a moment of opportunity for progressive movements?

Lewis: Particularly at this moment, I think the most important thing people can do is demand that responsibility be taken not only for the violence on Capitol Hill, but also for the Trump- and right-wing media-driven voter fraud lies that built the permissive environment for the insurrection. Dozens of corporations have suspended or eliminated contributions to members of Congress who voted against certifying the election, hundreds of business leaders denounced the insurrection, Trump’s approval is near record lows—society in this moment, including some critical levers of political power, is uniquely hostile to the revanchist conservatism that led to the insurrection. Fox News is still one of Trump’s most powerful allies, but as the Trumpist push against the election grew more extreme, the network lost viewers to right-wing rivals Newsmax and OAN, and Fox may have begun to get on the bad side of its biggest remaining advertiser— because he doesn’t think Fox supports Trump enough. With corporations eager to distance themselves from the insurrection, perhaps even Fox News’ cable fees could be imperiled by the network’s strong push to undermine the 2020 election. People of conscience should press the advantage and demand consequences for the attack on democracy, before this unique moment passes.

Vasquez: There is no denying that the Trump administration has been a goldmine for mainstream and cable news and the journalists who cover Trump closely. What are the ways in which mainstream and cable news networks are responsible for normalizing Trump's rhetoric and underplaying how dangerous and violent it is?

Lewis: It was well-documented that CNN gave enormous amounts of free airtime to the Trump campaign in 2016, back when the network was obsessed with the spectacle of a game show host running for president. CNN also developed a terrible habit of hiring former Trump officials to provide commentary, even though they were contractually forbidden from criticizing Trump and many of them abruptly quit or got fired in disgrace. Les Moonves, the former CEO of CBS who later lost his job for being a sexual predator, said Trump’s run for president “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Although those days have passed and in some ways coverage of Trump got much better, some normalizing trends unfortunately remained for the duration of Trump’s presidency.

For one, there is absolutely no need to invite a government official on a show when the network knows the official is just going to lie to the audience. Mainstream media outlets do have a critical “truth-telling” role, but telling the truth does not require platforming a liar, even if the liar has a prestigious job like White House press secretary. Continuing to have them on air, even if the interviews are contentious and filled with fact checks, does harm by treating a violently abnormal administration as normal.

A related scourge is mainstream media companies paying contributors or writers to represent conservative viewpoints with lies and misdirection. Showcasing a variety of viewpoints is one thing, but it is antithetical to the mission of a news organization to pay someone like conservative columnist Bret Stephens to mask vapid concern trolling as principled conservative arguments. Even in an opinion vertical, it’s unacceptable—not to mention the fact that Stephens has repeatedly embarrassed The New York Times with his terrible columns and petulant, entitled behavior. News staffers have likely been fired with cause for much less.

I am also concerned that, in time, Trump officials will get to become well-paid media contributors and consulting executives, despite the current popular scorn toward them. It may seem unthinkable amid the current level of popular and corporate outrage, but many former George W. Bush administration officials found comfortable gigs despite their various roles in launching or supporting the Iraq War, which was also based on lies in the media. Some former Trump officials, like John Bolton, are already collecting checks thanks to their time with President Trump. They should never work in or near politics again.

Vasquez: Among journalists, there has been a lot of talk about the words we need to be using in reporting to describe the perpetrators of the attempted coup—white supremacists, domestic terrorists, insurrectionists, etc. As someone who studies media and right-wing movements, what framing do you think is important for journalists to use right now? 

Lewis: It’s important to remember that white supremacy was a central force in the insurrection, much like it is with Trumpism, and remains a central force as we look to potential violence on and around Inauguration Day. White supremacy has always been the biggest threat to multiracial democracy, and the federal government often releases assessments to this effect. 9/11 notwithstanding, white supremacist terrorism has killed more Americans than any other kind, by far. But people, often conservatives, resist the need to talk about white supremacy, which only helps the white supremacists. Relatedly, it’s equally important to keep our focus on the fact that this was an attack on multiracial democracy, which is still quite young and fragile.

We can also never forget that right-wing media misinformation got us to this point. Whether one goes back to the “rigged election” lies of the 2020 election, the countless lies and misdirection that defended Trump’s other disgraces, or the more mundane “voter fraud” lies of the Bush/Obama era, conservative media have been misleading their audience about the fundamental workings of politics for years. Conservative media poisoned people’s minds with lies about the world, and then kept them from learning the truth by smearing truth-tellers with more misinformation. Trump, conservative media’s biggest fan, amplified these tendencies. Why would a die-hard Trump supporter believe that the election was fair, just because “fake news CNN” and its “deep state” sources said so? Or, why would a staunch Republican believe humans cause climate change, just because the liberal New York Times and the left-wing intelligentsia say so? The insurrection was, in some ways, an outgrowth of a larger information crisis that sits largely (but not entirely) at the feet of right-wing media.

Vasquez: What do you want Americans to be on the lookout for ahead of Inauguration Day? What are you anticipating will happen, and how do you recommend the media covers whatever happens?

Lewis: Unfortunately, Americans should be on the lookout for people in their communities planning or discussing political violence. The FBI is expecting armed protests at all 50 state legislatures, and again at the U.S. Capitol, in the lead-up to the inauguration—if true, it potentially poses a nationwide threat. Americans do have a right to protest, even to protest based on malicious lies, but we must be vigilant for overly apocalyptic rhetoric, calls for and suggestions of violence, and stockpiling of weapons. If there is a protest in your area, consider who’s organizing it and who is scheduled to appear—any person or group who was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, or helped organize or finance those events, should be a red flag. 

As someone who is from D.C. and who works in media, I unfortunately expect there to be violence around Inauguration Day. With any luck, my expectations will be incorrect. Violent far-right actors can often be all talk, but as we recently saw, things turn deadly when they decide they’re not bluffing. And with concurrent armed protests reportedly planned nationwide, there are many more situations that could potentially spiral out of control.

Whatever happens, the media should remember that our democracy itself came under attack on the 6th, and it appears to remain gravely threatened by the possibility of more insurrection. Protest is an American right, but insurrection is not—and it’s not an “unfair bias” for the media to be forcefully direct about who enables attacks on our democracy. Telling that truth will be extremely unpopular, and will likely result in death threats, potentially even actual violence—but with the stakes so high, there is no other option.

Vasquez: You’ve talked about the role of conservatives and conservative media in how we got here, but I’m curious where you see the Republican Party going post-Trump. Actually, where do you think all of this is going?

Lewis: I think people need to begin considering the idea that modern, mainstream U.S. conservatism is fundamentally a racist movement. It can be a difficult and scary concept to think about, given that it represents roughly half of the politically active adults in this country—and I’m not calling every conservative a racist or a terrorist—but for the past 50 years, the violent forces that would undo racial democracy have found a mainstream political home in Republican politics and nowhere else. From Lee Atwater’s Southern strategy to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” white supremacy has been a strong and consistent undercurrent on the right for half a century—like it used to be for the Democrats, prior to 1965. Again, we see this reflected in conservative media coverage like that which attacked President Obama as a Kenyan Muslim and calls Black Lives Matter activists “thugs” and “terrorists.” The clear racism in this media coverage is only clearer when juxtaposed with coverage of the “protesters” at the Capitol.

I’ve believed for all of my adult life that Republicans need an honest reckoning with how they became the party of white supremacy. Similarly, conservative media must think critically about the ways in which their coverage—including the false “voter fraud” obsession—has reinforced white supremacy. But even after the Republican president inspired a white supremacist attack on the Capitol, fed by reckless lies in right-wing media, it seems like that reckoning will never come—and the white supremacists will complete their takeover of the party.


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