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Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Interpretation of Media

In the past few days we've seen the expected spate of media from January 6, at the Capitol of the USA. Shaky cell phone videos, photographs, all kinds of shit.

As also expected, these have been carefully curated by everyone to present this story or that. We saw videos of the Trumps watching a rally in the morning of Jan 6, which is routinely and repeatedly mischaracterized as the Trumps watching the mob storm the Capitol Building. We have seen a carefully selected set of pictures and videos of Capitol Police opening doors, opening barricades, and standing by as protesters move freely. These are positioned, generally, as the Capitol Police acting in complicity with the mob.

We also saw a lot of rhetoric comparing the Capitol Police treatment of these protesters versus BLM protesters earlier this year, with again carefully curated sets of media. More recently, we're starting to see more pictures of physical altercations between officers and protesters, more scenes of tear-gas-obscured chaos, and so on. In short, we are only now seeing pictures that more resemble the BLM protest photos, pictures which we were not seeing earlier.

It is surely true that the Capitol Police treated this protest differently from the way they treated the BLM protests, but what is not clear to me is why this is a bad thing. It is widely agreed that the BLM protests were badly handled, isn't it? Add to that the fact that this was a rapidly unfolding, short-term, very localized protest action as opposed to a slowly evolving, long-term, geographically diffuse and mobile protest action and I become quite leery inferring too much from comparisons.

But, whatever. The differences in handling play in to the ways people are interpreting the media they are seeing, and that is what I am interested in here, really.

Whether complicity, incompetence, or strategy, the building as a whole (with small but important exceptions) was ceded to the protesters, to the mob, for a few hours. You can read the photographs and videos any way you like.

You can read the photos and videos from within the mob as anything from "idiots talking shit" to "a vicious mob bent on murder" and it's not even clear to me whether there's a functional difference here. Idiots talking shit just need one yahoo, probably drunk, high, or both, to break ranks and start charging the building, or shooting hostages, and suddenly you're an actual vicious mob bent on murder.

There is an interesting theme running through the photos, which I am not sure many people notice. The uniformed officers are doing various things: standing around, shoving at the barricades, wrestling with protesters, spraying pepper-spray, that sort of thing. There are other guys, guys in suits over body armor.

I'm pretty sure these are the dudes who are charged with defending the legitimate government of the USA, and they seem to be really serious bastards. The protester who was shot was shot by a guy in a suit as she was trying to move toward the House Chamber (where that Government was currently sheltering, before being evacuated.) The cops with pistols out pointing at a door are these guys, defending the Legitimate Government of the USA which is currently huddled under their seats in the Chamber behind the cops.

These cops are aiming over a piece of furniture which I suppose is kept near the door for the feng shui. The fact that it neatly barricades the door as well is surely a happy accident.

Whatever your preferred narrative here, once the barricades collapsed the Capitol Police had very limited options, I think, and I think they executed pretty well. I guess they could have just opened fire on the crowd, there were cops with rifles positioned to do just that. The mob probably would have broken and run for it, eventually. I don't think I would approve that plan.

The civilians were protected, and safely evacuated (did you notice that there are exactly zero civilians visible in any of the media of protesters inside the Capitol Building? They've all been hustled off to defensible spaces, i.e. the two chambers, where extremely tense men in suits are doing their job.

What is interesting to me here, though, is the way these pictures are being interpreted. What looks to me to be consistent with de-escalation is seen by others as complicity, and still others as simple incompetence.

You can construct a narrative around Trumps and Republicans egging on the crowd, although that story doesn't hold a lot of water since all that media seems to come from maybe 1:30pm or earlier, when it seemed to be pretty much an ordinary protest. These things happen several times a week. You have to drag in some "well, the gun nuts were talking about it on Parler for weeks so obviously they knew what was going to happen" theory, which is, well, a bit iffy. But.. ok, I guess? I mean, it kinda works, if you squint, and weirder shit has surely happened.

You can construct a narrative of incompetence, and there have been resignations, so I'm willing to admit there was incompetence. I guess the crowd control specifics were pretty minimal. Again, you have to assume that the cops were supposed to take randos shooting off their mouths on Parler seriously. I dunno Parler at all, but it sounds like the kind of deal where randos are literally shooting their mouths off 24x7, it's the app you use to do that. Maybe there are ways to assess which blathering is credible, but if so, I am not privy to those methods.

And you can construct a narrative of a practical strategy, a protocol more or less properly executed. The Capitol Police have surely had plans in place for "when the mob breaks into the building" for 50+ years, and it probably includes options for "let's not just machine gun them all, but instead let's protect and evacuate the civilians, and clear the mob later."

It may also have options for "let's just machine gun the lot of them into hamburger and call it a day" but I am glad they did not choose that one.

In the end, the ground truth is probably a mixture. Some of the cops were probably a bit sympathetic to the mob. The leadership probably did ignore warning signs, and not roll out the Heavy Crowd Control gear. And, when it went pear shaped, the serious guys in suits kept all the civilians safe. Symbolically it's a huge event, an unprecedented breach, a line never before crossed. In terms of actual real-world effects, as insurrections go, pretty low key.  A failed coup with a total of 5 fatalities is pretty good, no?

What makes the whole thing particularly interesting to me, of course, is that people who ought to know better are falling into the trap. They are accepting mislabeled media as accurate when it supports their politics, they are consistently reading pictures in particular ways, ditto. Of course, even university professors and self-styled media experts are entitled to their personal views. Indeed, one can hardly avoid having personal views. Still, they seem, sometimes, overly credulous under underly critical.

Me? My default starting position on practically any piece of media is "I have no idea what the hell I am even looking at" and I try real hard to be careful about how I read it, and what I make of it. Meaning is slippery, and it tends to arise from inside ourselves far more than we think.


  1. I watch this drama from Europe. There is one thing that I don't understand from this Capitol rally: why didn't the Trump supporters bring guns? I mean: maybe I am completely wrong and you'll correct me, but from Europe we have this narrative about the USA being a country where guns are sold in supermarkets. And certainly there are some armed "militia" supporting that "special" president of yours. The same rally with the same crowd of deluded MAGA supporters to serve as human shields for about a hundred armed militia members would have ended in a very different manner.

    And Trump speech was just about that. He actually referred to this kind of violence. But we did not have this militia. And of course we don't hear about it because the press never notices when something is NOT there.

    Why is that so? What is your feeling about it? Am I completely deluded because I live on another continent?

    1. Not at all sure why there were no guns in play.

      Was is a surprising display of common sense? I dunno. Bringing a gun into the Capitol is, I believe, a Much Bigger Deal than bringing your own dumb self in there. It's a semi-public space, in less disease-ridden times, after all, but they really frown on firearms.

      It is clear from the photos that they were prepared to make the steps of the Capitol run with blood, if need be? It's possible that brandishing gun might have set that off.

      So, again, I am really very happy they didn't bring guns. I have, though, so real explanations.

  2. Writing here from far away I hear Fox, CNN, New York Times et al were caught several times last year telling the truth. Same for Europe no doubt.
    Asking “cui bono?” and then applying any version of Occam's Razor gives me a completely different version of events from around the world compared to what I read in the MSM, oddly enough.
    Images are such powerful tools. I've watched so many people over the last four years reduced to seeing events in the US in purely black and white terms. To the point where they view a man in a chewbacca bikini with a dead animal on his head as the most dangerous terrorist on the planet.
    Can't say that aloud though. Folks start shouting at me.

    1. "To the point where they view a man in a chewbacca bikini with a dead animal on his head as the most dangerous terrorist on the planet."

      Probably the equivalent of a rodeo clown, misdirection.

  3. "In terms of actual real-world effects, as insurrections go, pretty low key. A failed coup with a total of 5 fatalities is pretty good, no?"
    I think you have failed to account for the damage done to the world status of the US and to the concept of democracy, regardless of how the photos are interpreted. That it happened was sufficient.

    1. While your remark has real merit, it's not quite on point. My discussion here was intended to specifically talk about the performance of the Capitol Police vis a vis the events of Jan 6 and the narratives we're seeing around that, specifically.

      The political impact of these events, though, depends also on the media positioning: this could easily have been positioned as "protesters briefly enter the Capitol building after breaching the barricades, break some things, take selfies" or as "an armed insurrection nearly toppled the US government today"

      The media is preferring the latter, over the former, although the former appears closer to the truth.

      While it's not quite "mob trashes public park, nobody cares except the park service who has to clean up the mess" it's not actually that far off.

      While not even remotely clear in the moment, in hindsight is is pretty clear that at no time did this bunch of idiots pose a credible threat to anything much past issues of basic hygiene.

  4. You should be a little careful not to be too dismissive. A lame insurrection with "only" 5 dead would be ok in a "sh*t hole" banana republic in 1958, but it's not a good look for DC. I watched Michael Moore's hour long monologue on youtube and one of his questions was where were the barricades and police on horse back that are routinely present during a lot of demonstrations. As you say though, incompetence explains a lot of things in life. Anyway, someone will investigate the hell out of this, lots of text and email logs to analyze. But yeah, buffalo horns and confederate flags don't exactly point to those guys being the "A" team.
    I get it that you want to be skeptical about media image spin. They may have it down to such a science that they can whip the stuff up in near real time. I used to joke about forming a company that produced and warehoused banners and placards so that demonstrators could just order the stuff up at the last minute, you know, outsource the revolution. But it's probably a dumb idea, I'm sure they get lots of free labour.

  5. Can't believe this dipshit mediawhore manages to eclipse reporting on a plague ravaging unchecked, with hundreds of thousands of casualties and the economy in freefall, and get half the country with their heads up their ass to shoot themselves in the face while paying for the privilege. Because racial panic, abortion, tribalism, what? That's some kinda weird media mojo right there. How fucking dumb is America anyway?