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The Insurrection At The Capitol Is A TV Event That Will Live In History

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. There are times over the long history of television when TV brings us live images of something so unusual, so memorable and, often, so shocking we'll never forget it. And we'll remember where we were when we saw it. This week, after sitting through a night of crucial Georgia recount election results, I saw the newest example, a very frightening one. Thousands of supporters of Donald Trump, egged on by the president, surrounded the capital. Many of them stormed the building, broke through windows and temporarily disrupted the official congressional acceptance of the electoral votes awarding the presidency to Joe Biden.

While it happened, TV reporters and anchors and commentators responded with a mixture of fear and disbelief, much as they did the morning of 9/11. And watching at home, you had the same sense of witnessing anarchy and danger. On MSNBC, Chuck Todd watched live images from a Capitol surveillance camera with veteran reporter Andrea Mitchell and former Senator Claire McCaskill. All of them sounded not only concerned and confused but stunned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)

CHUCK TODD: Claire McCaskill, you know the Senate well. I assume you've - do you have a memory of anything near like this?

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: No...

ANDREA MITCHELL: We just saw protesters walking through Statuary Hall, Claire. I don't want to interrupt. But...

TODD: (Laughter)

MITCHELL: ...We just saw people right - going right through - there they are...

TODD: In our - what looks like...

MITCHELL: Looks like it's Statuary Hall. Now, that is the area by which...

TODD: Is that the Walt Whitman camera that's capturing those, I believe? That's Whitman's statue?

MITCHELL: No, I'm not sure whether that's the Walt Whitman camera. But that - what that is is the area where the senators process to go into House for joint sessions. So it is through there that they walk.

TODD: Unbelievable. Yeah. I mean, it's...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: We are televising the breach, by the way.

BIANCULLI: Those who were watching on TV may have found it impossible to turn away. It was well into evening, after a clamp-down curfew in Washington, D.C., when order was restored inside and outside the Capitol. Politicians resumed their task of accepting the Electoral College results from the 2020 election. And some resumed their unsupported charges of election fraud. It was hours past midnight when the Senate and House, in defiance of the failed insurrection, finally finished their task and acknowledged Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.

Watching all of this reminded me most of all of the days after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. That tragic, violent event wasn't televised, but its aftermath was for four non-stop TV days that included everything from JFK's funeral procession to the murder of his alleged assassin. That was shown on live TV and, to anyone who saw it, was unforgettable. That same decade of the '60s gave us to other assassinations that weren't caught on camera - not at the moment shots were fired - the 1968 murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. But the subsequent TV coverage was long enough, deep enough and emotional enough that if you were alive then, you still remember watching it on TV.

There aren't many of those frozen media moments we all share. But they're worth remembering. And they're very easy to remember. Only one was a happy event, the successful moon landing in 1969. Otherwise, these major news events seemed to come out of nowhere. I remember being so frightened by breaking TV news of the Watergate-related Saturday Night Massacre in the '70s that I worried whether our republic would stand. In the '80s, the Challenger explosion was a major shock. And when the deadly events of 9/11 unfolded that morning in 2001, TV coverage seared that day into the minds of everyone.

Yesterday, the day after rioters forced their way into the Capitol, people on television were referring to it as a 9/11 event. And for my college-aged TV history students too young to remember or experience 9/11, they now have their own remember-when TV moment. But others are watching, too. It wasn't until the day after the attack on the U.S. Capitol that I saw it from an international perspective when British ITV reporter Robert Moore accompanied the Trump mob as it made its way inside the building. He captured their chants and comments, as well as their actions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ITV BROADCAST)

ROBERT MOORE: We followed the aggrieved and infuriated Trump supporters as they stormed the building...

(CROSSTALK)

MOORE: ...Through broken windows and doors they had forced open.

(CROSSTALK)

MOORE: And for a few heady moments, they felt they had won a precious victory.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. Stop the steal. Stop the steal. Stop the steal. Stop the steal. Stop the steal.

MOORE: They were now in the very heart of the congressional building.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Our house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose house?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Our house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose house?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Our house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose house?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Our house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose house?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Our house.

MOORE: What's the purpose of storming Congress itself?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Because they work for us.

BIANCULLI: As they used to say in the '60s, the whole world is watching. It's frightening to note that the events of this week rank as one of the most momentous live TV events ever broadcast. But the imagery, as well as the actions, were that vivid. And there may be more to come in the days ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FOOTPRINTS")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, humorist Fran Lebowitz. After developing a now famous case of writer's block, she turned talking into an art form. She's now in the new Netflix documentary series called "Pretend It's A City." It's a series of interviews with her conducted mostly by her friend Martin Scorsese, who also directed the series. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FOOTPRINTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.