On the Front Lines of an Insurrection
Covering right-wing extremist violence is creating a generation of a new kind of combat journalist who is at risk both on and off the field
“We aren’t war correspondents,” noted Punchbowl, a newsletter for D.C. insiders, in its reflection on the one-year anniversary of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. One year ago, dozens of journalists gathered for what most believed would be a contentious but fairly manageable day of protests against Joe Biden’s formal confirmation to the Presidency. By the end of the day, that assumption had been completely upended. In storming the Capitol, the Trump-led insurrectionists left behind a trail of destruction that included mangled cameras, stolen equipment, and injured reporters, some forced to don gas masks and riot gear. In effect, the Capitol became the new front lines of a war zone that has peppered the country in recent years and produced a kind of domestic war correspondent: journalists in the field working doggedly, often putting themselves in significant danger, to cover a rising tide of extremist violence.
The moment on January 6, 2021, when Megan Pratz, the political director of Cheddar News, realized she was about to witness an unprecedented news event came just after she entered the Capitol building to watch senators proceed into the Senate chamber to ratify the results of the 2020 election. As the politicians disappeared, a Capitol police officer came sprinting down the corridor, seemingly out of nowhere. When Pratz and her colleague, photojournalist Shawn Klein, turned to leave the building, guards informed them that the Capitol had been locked down. Pratz recalled that she was called “the C-word” by an enraged member of the mob who spotted her recording and that other members yelled out, “We’re coming for you!”
“I was just there to talk about election results,” said Pratz, who before joining Cheddar in 2018 had covered D.C. as a correspondent and producer for China’s CGTN, Fox News, and Al Jazeera America. “And things changed. What happens is that you adjust to the story, and that’s what I did.” She and Klein were eventually able to leave through an adjoining office building that had not yet been locked down and gathered in a designated press zone in front of the Capitol to get some rolling live shots of the area. Before long, waves of rioters, visible behind Pratz in her shots, were pushing their way into the Capitol by overpowering police officers and breaking down metal barriers. “I kept reassuring visitors that the Capitol was impenetrable,” Pratz said. “I was wrong.”
The kind of violence at the Capitol last January was familiar to Sergio Olmos, a freelance journalist for outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Reuters who has reported extensively on the running street brawls between extremist groups in the Pacific Northwest. He said he tries to maintain his calm in high-pressure, mob-driven events by remembering the “human aspect.” “The thing you shouldn’t do is be the other,” he said. “You’ve got to talk to people, even if you feel a little bit worried. You’ve got to see past the regalia and the costumes.” It’s the embedded journalist’s job, Olmos said, to find out why “these people are out here on a Saturday when they could be doing anything else in the beautiful world.”
The job also requires tenacity, flexibility, and a level of alertness that approaches a sixth sense. “You’ve got to be very aware of when there is tension in the crowd,” said Olmos, who owns his own set of body armor plates, emblazoned with the word “PRESS,” as well as a mirrored gas mask, to use while reporting, “because when shit does go down, it usually happens incredibly fast.” Extremist rallies and gatherings don’t always unfold as long, uninterrupted stretches of violence. Sometimes, reporters and photographers will mill around, chatting and making jokes, then snap into focus suddenly when one or more of them sense a disruption in the crowd: a gun drawn, a provocation made. “You’ll develop muscles,” Olmos said. “Your guts will process that stuff.”
Today’s extremist agitators, including many of those who attacked the Capitol, tend to be highly online, with the savvy and brazenness to investigate and harass reporters they meet, often by doxxing them or sending death threats. Complicating things further, many extremists lead pretty normal lives outside of rallies, which makes them a stealthy but omnipresent threat. Working the domestic insurgent beat means “structuring your life differently,” said Olmos, “so that when extremists try to find you and hurt you, you can’t make it easy for them.”
That means refraining from posting a picture of your dinner at a restaurant on Instagram, for example, or downloading programs like DeleteMe, which wipes a user’s personal information off the Internet. Olmos said he’s inclined to use a different name for DoorDash deliveries since he knows of anarchists in Portland who moonlight as delivery workers. “I was in an Uber with a photographer where the [driver] was talking about our work,” Olmos said. “He was just talking about a rally and was like, these guys did this”—referring pejoratively to the journalists. “He didn’t know it was us.”
It’s not uncommon for work this intense to prompt a traumatic response. “I was so overwhelmed by what had happened,” said Pratz, who evacuated the Capitol with Klein after rioters began to interfere with their filming, leaving all of their gear and equipment behind in the mayhem. “The gear cost wasn’t worth us getting hurt or being assaulted,” she explained.
Later that evening, once she was safely at home, Pratz felt perturbed and anxious and had to sleep separately from her kids and husband to settle her mind. In the aftermath of January 6, she’s tried not to rewatch footage of her broadcast from that afternoon. “I had a very strong emotional response,” she said. “I think it has made me a little bit more cautious. I was always the first one to be like, ‘Yeah, let’s go in. Let’s do this.’ But I do think I’ve [become] more cautious about trips, and where we go, and what we film.”
Olmos, who was batoned by a police officer while reporting on racial justice protests in Portland, said he didn’t recognize that he was traumatized at first. “The next day, I was off. I was just staring into the distance,” he said. “Clearly, it was a sign that I was traumatized, but I didn’t know that.” It wasn’t until he met up and talked with other journalists, some of whom had also been brutalized while reporting on the protests, that he realized they might all be reacting similarly to the pressures and physical dangers of their work. “We could all kind of drink a beer together afterward,” Olmos said. “We all know each other at this point, and we help each other.”
Ultimately, it’s collaboration and community—sharing experiences and committing to helping others in the field—that can ease the psychological burden that comes with reporting on violent clashes. “We really trusted each other,” said Pratz of Klein, who had only worked at Cheddar for around two months before the Capitol riot. “It was really, really bonding in the moment because it was all about trying to keep each other safe.”
Olmos is part of a group of 16 journalists who cover extremism and demonstrations in Portland and who he said share information, leads, equipment, and even occasionally carpool together. “It’s counterintuitive in a sense since we all work in different newsrooms,” said Olmos. “It’s almost like a conflict area where journalists stop competing with each other in a way and become more collaborative,” he said. “You need a group, so you know you’re not alone in the wilderness. A tribe is looking out for me.”
Since January 6, extremist activity has continued to play out mainly on a local level, as prominent right-wing groups—many of whose leaders and members were arrested for participating in the Capitol attack—attempt to regain strength from the ground up, precinct by precinct. It’s local and regional reporters who are likely to bear witness to future agitation and who will benefit from developing close-knit relationships with other reporters. “What matters is that you find a group who are ethical journalists, and they understand what you’re going through, and you communicate with them, you talk to them, you go to dinner with them,” said Olmos. “And when you go through stuff, they’ll be the ones to shield you from a lot of the worst aspects and trauma, just because your mind will already know, ‘Someone else knows what I’m going through.’ That’s all you need.”