‘This was like war’: CMC hosts panel on Jan. 6 insurrection with journalist alumni

CMC alumni journalists Sahil Kapur ’09, Michael Shear ’90 and Elise Viebeck ’10 discussed what it was like to cover the Jan. 6 insurrection in a Tuesday panel. (Courtesy • Claremont McKenna College)

On Tuesday, Claremont McKenna College hosted a forum with three high-profile journalists — all of whom are alumni of the college — to share their experiences covering last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol.  

The New York Times’ White House correspondent Michael Shear CM ’90 and NBC News’ senior national political reporter Sahil Kapur CM ’09 gave 5C students a personal perspective on what it was like to witness the Jan. 6 insurrection from the lens of a reporter. 

Held at CMC’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum and sponsored by the Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World, the talk was moderated by Elise Viebeck CM ’10, a former journalist with The Washington Post.

Seeking to uncover a more analytical view of the events, the panelists started by outlining the political context directly preceding the insurrection. 

To Shear, in the pre-Donald Trump era, “politics had a cadence that one could get used to; you can kind of understand the boundaries in which politics exists.” During the Trump administration, though, he found himself “exhausted by the craziness” of it all. 

Viebeck said that from the very beginning of the Trump administration, things were different. She recalled an incident in which a car was set on fire during the former president’s inauguration.

Kapur also noted the 2020 U.S. presidential election was “unusual because of the massive expansion of mail-in and other means of polling.”

“People simply didn’t have the luxury of going to the polls during the height of the pandemic,” Kapur said. 

The differences became more pronounced as Trump “argued that the election was stolen without any evidence, continuing to press that claim despite the rejection of his legal challenges in the courts and disagreement by members of his own Cabinet,” Kapur said. 

All three panelists were in Washington, D.C. on the morning of Jan. 6, but only Kapur was near the Capitol. 

“I didn’t even want to watch the counting of a vote; I considered it a rote formality,” Kapur said.

On trying to leave NBC News’ Washington bureau headquarters, Kapur recounted that “my doorman wouldn’t let me leave because there was violence in the street,” but he eventually made it out of the building. After leaving, though, he said he was instructed by his editors to “escape” downtown D.C.

While Shear was not there personally, he said that one of the photographers he regularly worked with was assaulted and their press pass was stolen. 

Shear also said that he “texted [Mark] Meadows [the White House Chief of Staff at the time] to ask if the President was going to speak and get out there and stop the rally,” a text which has become publicly available due to the Jan. 6 Committee’s investigations.

Viebeck added that she thought it was interesting watching the major news channel coverage transition from wide shots of the Capitol building to closeups of the inside, stating that “photographers were in the fray, using war zone training to accommodate this situation.”

“This was like war,” Elise Viebeck said.

Looking back on the insurrection, on a personal level, the panelists said they were “deeply disturbed.”

Kapur said that prior to the insurrection, he had “spent hours upon hours, nights upon nights” in the Capitol building, and it “represents the most stability I had in my life.” 

“After changing beats and states numerous times, I always felt safe in that building,” Kapur said. 

Analyzing the event in the aftermath, the journalists said they were disappointed in the lack of preemptive action from the government despite evidence of planning on the part of the insurrectionists. 

Viebeck — who helped author the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service-winning Washington Post piece entitled “The Attack,” which covered the insurrection in detail — noted that the “security system didn’t work against domestic terrorism.”

“If the people who planned [the insurrection] were different people, if they looked different, would there have been more preparation?” Sahil Kapur said.

Throughout the Trump presidency, Shear sensed that the media was “always a step behind.”

“There was just a kind of expectation among the press who had worked with presidential administrations that, of course, the White House wouldn’t want the Capitol to be overrun,” Shear said. 

Following the panelists’ discussion, students interacted with the journalists during a Q&A section during which they asked the panelists questions about developing sources and the role of journalism in a hyperpolarized political environment. 

“I may write critical pieces, but I want to represent [my subjects] fairly,” Kapur said. “Everyone in the story should have a chance to comment; no one in your story should ever be surprised about what you write.”

Delving more into the fair representation of sources, Viebeck further commented on how hyperpolarization has mistaken the press to be biased rather than objective. 

“No one wants to write a report for an echo chamber,” Viebeck said. “People on the left think that journalists are heroes — they’re not the heroes for the left.”

After the event, Shear talked to TSL about his time writing for The Collage, a now-defunct newspaper for the Claremont Colleges. Shear said that Bill Keller PO ’70, who went on to hire Shear at the New York Times, had written for the very same newspaper. 

Shear noted that he was a huge fan of student journalism and said he did an independent study on Supreme Court cases covering student journalists.

“I hope it continues to thrive and that people choose to go into the profession,” Shear said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Sahil Kapur CM ’09 as saying he writes ‘hit’ pieces. It has been updated to reflect that he said ‘critical pieces.’ The article also incorrectly referred to Viebeck in later mentions as ‘Vibeck,’ as well as ‘he’ rather than ‘she.’ Additionally, the article incorrectly stated that only Kapur was in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6; all three panelists were in Washington, D.C. on the morning of Jan. 6, but only Kapur was near the Capitol. TSL regrets these errors.

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