Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, as a horde of violent, paranoid morons, inflamed by fictitious tales of electoral malfeasance and goaded into action by a nihilistic president, stormed the U.S. Capitol, a Touro College professor named Thane Rosenbaum went on Newsmax TV to discuss a crowd he thought was still gathering outside*. “I think today is a demonstration of the vibrancy of our democracy. You’ve got tens of thousands of people standing outside of the Capitol, exercising their First Amendment rights of freedom of association and freedom of speech,” said Rosenbaum, who in his royal-blue blazer and eyeglasses looked a bit like an emissary from Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. “I think that’s sort of a romantic idea.”
If you believe that there’s a certain romance in anti-democratic death-cultism, then, sure, I guess romance was in the air on Capitol Hill this afternoon. As such, Newsmax TV’s coverage of the siege of the U.S. Capitol was a testament to the notion that love means never having to say you’re sorry. Since November, Newsmax has become television’s foremost amplifier of Trump’s various efforts to dispute the validity of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. It has essentially functioned like the sort of cable news network you’d see in a low-budget action movie, reporting on made-up stories as if they were real, with “name” reporters making cameos here and there to lend verisimilitude to the whole thing. “Our top story: The election has been stolen by a deep-state cabal!” Save us, Gerard Butler, you’re our only hope!
The network’s ratings, once minuscule, have become slightly less minuscule as a result of its pernicious fictions. In chasing the prospect of cutting into Fox News’ business, Newsmax has hitched itself to the stolen-election train and has decided to ride it all the way off the rails. The conditions for Wednesday’s insurrection were created in part by Newsmax and all the other sources that spent the past two months sucking up to Trump and stoking the far-right’s imaginary grievances about a “stolen” election. Ah, the things we do for love!
I spent Wednesday afternoon watching Newsmax TV’s coverage. Far from taking it as an opportunity to reflect on and repent for its journalistic sins, the network spent the early part of the afternoon simply not covering the story. When the news finally became too big for it to ignore, Newsmax proceeded to cover the storming of the Capitol in much the same way it covered the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election: poorly, and with utter cynicism.
By casting doubt on the details of what was actually happening inside the Capitol, speculating about the possible presence of left-wing “infiltrators” within the ranks of good, honest insurrectionists, justifying the purportedly legitimate grievances of the right-wing nutjobs who had gathered in D.C., and making innumerable irrelevant references to antifa and Black Lives Matter, Newsmax showed itself for what it was and what any sentient critic has always known it to be: a would-be dictator’s propaganda engine, a house organ for a fascist’s fantasy state.
The progression of Newsmax’s coverage went like this. In the early stages of the siege, Newsmax chose to pretend that nothing unusual was happening on Capitol Hill; that, in fact, those who had shown up in D.C. to express their displeasure with the election results exemplified the best of American democracy in action. “[There are] thousands of people outside the Capitol who have walked up Pennsylvania Avenue … and they are making their voices known,” said fill-in anchor Tom Basile. (At the same time, over on Fox News, Bret Baier was reporting on a “security threat inside [the] U.S. Capitol.”)
“What you’re hearing now are constitutional arguments,” said Prof. Rosenbaum of the debate in the Senate chamber. At the same time, Newsmax’s live video from the Senate cut out because the chamber was being evacuated after rioters had breached the building. Newsmax didn’t say anything about why the feed had cut out. Instead, Basile concluded Rosenbaum’s segment. Then, he spent a full minute urging viewers to download the Newsmax app. The more you (don’t) know! (After this article was published, Rosenbaum wrote to add, “I know of no First Amendment scholar or commenter who believes that freedom of speech and assembly also guarantees a right to intimidate and make violence. And having senators and congresspersons debate, under a 19th century federal statute, constitutional objections to the Electoral College results of three states, is precisely the kind of representative democracy that our Founders contemplated.”)
While it’s tempting to ascribe Newsmax’s reportorial omissions to willful intent, it is also worth noting that Newsmax is a terrible, low-budget news network, and it is very possible that it just simply didn’t know that anything was happening. Soon, though, the news of the siege finally became too big for even Newsmax to ignore. “We are hearing on our end that protesters have breached the building,” Basile told correspondent Emerald Robinson shortly after 2:30 p.m.
“Oh, really. That’s new to me,” said Robinson, and then the two of them put that new information aside in order to speculate on who, exactly, might be responsible for this breach. “The last couple times we’ve seen these rallies, it hasn’t just been the president’s supporters,” said Basile. “We have seen antifa, we have seen Black Lives Matter, we have seen leftist groups that have tried to stir up violence.” The unmasked, MAGA-hatted figures storming the Capitol rotunda in the social media video Newsmax played on repeat certainly didn’t look like leftist agitators, but, then again, you never can tell, can you? Later in the hour, after noting that leftist groups “oftentimes infiltrate rallies for their own purposes,” Basile announced that “we’re not going to definitively suggest who these people are, what their aims are. As we have noted, there are groups that do infiltrate these protests.” On Newsmax TV, there is no such thing as Occam’s razor.
Around 3:30 p.m., ex–Fox & Friends First guy Rob Schmitt took over in the anchor’s chair for Basile. “Whether we’ll ever get a detailed chronicle of what actually occurred to escalate things, I don’t know,” said guest Mark Halperin, as per the network’s apparent mandate to never, ever connect any obvious dots. Soon, Schmitt welcomed as a guest former NYPD commissioner and pardoned felon Bernard Kerik, who scoffed at those in the media who were, in his estimation, overreacting to the news of the day. “You have 6 to 10 people who breached the building. Deal with it,” said Kerik. The real story, according to Kerik? “People are frustrated. They want to be heard. … They believe the election was stolen, and this is their way of getting it out.”
As the afternoon continued, Schmitt kept harping on how he wanted to know the exact number of people who stormed the Capitol. The point of his quantitative fixation was obvious: Schmitt was eager to echo Kerik’s contention that the ratio of violent rioters to peaceful protesters was actually much smaller than every other network was reporting, and that the vast majority of the Trumpists on the Mall were obeying the law and assembling peacefully. “At the end of the day, most Trump supporters love law enforcement,” he said at one point. “[They’re] not the sort of people that are going to go into the Capitol and start ripping things down.” Schmitt’s contentions here were undercut by social media footage of Trump supporters ripping things down inside the Capitol, and also at times by his own reporting. At one point, Schmitt did a phone interview with an “influencer” named Tina Forte, on the scene on Capitol Hill, who in a thick New York/New Jersey accent announced that “this is our house, and we have the right to be here. … We are in our house, OK? And we have a right to be heard.” You could almost hear the rage spittle in her voice.
Newsmax kept on trying to justify that rage. Even as the network began to urge rioters to go home and reiterated that, unlike the left, the right was supposed to believe in and respect law and order, its anchors and guests continued to claim that the rioters’ election grievances were factually based. Schmitt noted that there were “a number of things that look a little bit screwy about how this election went down,” even if “maybe some of these parties have taken things a little too far.”
“The frustration that these people feel is not their fault,” said guest Tom Del Beccaro, who also announced that “we actually have seen worse than this. We have seen politicians in 1856 attack the speaker with a cane.”
“Whether rightly or wrongly, people feel like their voices haven’t been heard,” said reporter Michael Carter. “This was a last-ditch effort today to literally break down the doors of Congress and shout their frustrations.” The whether rightly or wrongly is the most important part of that commentary. It’s wrongly! Every intelligent person knows that it’s wrongly! Michael Carter probably knows that it’s wrongly; Newsmax boss Chris Ruddy certainly knows that it’s wrongly. The election was not stolen! Joe Biden won it legitimately. There is no kraken; there is no meaningful voter fraud; there was no vote tampering. These facts are not actually in dispute. It is only because they are facts that Newsmax has chosen to dispute them, for facts are inconvenient to its propagandistic narrative and to the would-be dictator whom the network has found it profitable to flatter. Whether rightly or wrongly. A number of things look a little bit screwy. Many people are saying. Bullshit percolates. The Capitol falls.
Carter had been reporting from Capitol Hill for Newsmax TV all day, and had at one point been among those who had been tear-gassed by officials attempting to disperse the crowds. “I asked a protester: ‘What does tear gas taste like?’ ” Carter said near the end of the 4 p.m. hour. “The answer: ‘It tastes like freedom.’ ”
“Yeah, it does,” said an unseen voice—a MAGA protester, presumably, perhaps someone whose commitment to conspiratorial YouTube civics and made-up news on basic cable led them to D.C., to the rally, to the siege of the Capitol. On Wednesday, they still had a voice on television, too.
Update, Jan. 7, 4:16 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify that Rosenbaum was unaware that pro-Trump rioters had stormed the U.S. Capitol as he taped, and to include a comment expanding on why he believes debate over objections to the Electoral College vote is appropriate, and a violent siege is not.