I’m not mad, just disappointed

A big round of applause to the nation's top newsrooms for giving a C-list Trump activist more publicity than money can buy

Let me start by applauding leaders in the United States press corps on their tireless gassing of September 18th’s “Justice for J6” rally into an event of international importance by speculating on its potential to be a repeat of the Capitol riot. Don’t be modest. Spread your arms and soak up the congratulations.

I’ll have something more productive to say next week in my professional capacity over at DFRLab, but for the sake of my own selfish, personal catharsis please excuse me while I change into Joker makeup for a moment.

I save my grace with half-assed guilt
And lay down the quilt upon the lawn
Spread my arms and soak up congratulations

I’m not mad, just disappointed

It’s almost hard for me to put into words how discouraged I’m feeling after watching the editorial decisions national media outlets made ahead of Saturday’s rally. Had these outlets done their due diligence—like trying to size up organizer Matt Braynard’s real influence, or looking for proof that this event was worth the paper the permit was filed on—they would have quickly realized that this “Justice for J6” rally was all but dead on arrival.

Major news outlets ran wall-to-wall coverage ahead of this rally, giving organizer Matt Braynard more public exposure than money can buy. (What Braynard does with his new clout remains to be seen.) Though impossible to quantify, my hunch is that at least some of the people drawn out to DC this weekend showed up simply for the chance to advance their own profiles with the help of the world’s press.

Some of this coverage was actually quite good, particularly from reporters who knew the space well enough to be skeptical of Braynard and his event. But sadly, a lot of the not-so-good coverage I’m critiquing here contained speculation that the event could reach a scale it never had a hope to.

The ratio of press to rallygoers I would conservatively estimate was about 20:1. Frankly, it was sometimes hard to tell who was there to earnestly support the rally, since they were so outnumbered by camera operators and reporters. Photographers and journalists swarmed in circles around the smallest hints of action, reminding me of this now iconic photo:

In spite of any individual journalist or producer in any specific newsroom who cared about getting the story correct, editorial choices made at some of the nation’s most agenda-setting outlets demanded story after story after story about what was ultimately a Trump-extended-universe wannabe hosting another one of his small events.

Eventually, some experts were called. In-house reporters on the beat checked out the situation. Everyone credible was saying something to the effect of “Yeah, this doesn’t look like much.” But despite this, many news outlets charged on with speculative coverage, seemingly unable to pause and process what it was those expert voices were telling them. Perhaps that was the most disheartening part.

Bad coverage can lead to problems

Most Americans grow up hearing the classic fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” In it, a young lad repeatedly warns that a wolf is attacking his village’s flock of sheep, despite it not being true. Eventually the village learns to ignore the boy. Then, when a wolf really does show up, the boy can’t convince his village that the beast really is devouring the flock—for real this time!

This is a very basic analogy (and perhaps an overly simplistic one) to explain what I’m afraid may happen if national news media continues in this vicious cycle of extremism coverage it’s stuck in. Many major news operations are missing the bigger picture entirely. Those outlets would do well to reflect on the coverage they ran ahead of today’s rally and to reckon with its problematic scale.

It’s harder for me to fault the overwhelming police presence at the rally. My suspicion is that the show of force was meant, in part, to send a message that Capitol Police and local authorities are not going to take chances with this kind of organizing anymore. (That is an important message to send!) And there were, in fact, a few extremist faces in the crowd today, though their presence was sparse and their actions primarily consisted of aimless wandering. But even then, the amount of free publicity this dud of a gathering received beforehand was grossly undeserved.

Because of it, Matt Braynard got to walk away from his event Saturday with a new message in his pocket: claiming that media and law enforcement lied about his event. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him on Fox News next week.

And that’s precisely the kind of thing that extremism experts tried to warn the press about ahead of this event.

(Update @ 5:05pm ET): This post was updated to remove a reference to Google News search result numbers. I have since learned that those metrics are often unreliable.