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‘All I could see was what was in front of me’: Jan. 6 anniversary means a chance to zoom out

Journalists look back on their coverage of the day

Trump rioters occupy the West Front of the Capitol and the inauguration stands on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump rioters occupy the West Front of the Capitol and the inauguration stands on Jan. 6, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“This is actually tougher than I thought it was going to be,” said photojournalist Bill Clark as he sat down to relive Jan. 6.

For people just trying to do their jobs that day, there wasn’t a lot of time to think. A year later, the pace of the Capitol still works against reflection, but some memories stand out.

“People talk about Jan. 6  like it was this event that happened, and now it’s over,” said reporter Chris Cioffi, who took shelter in the Senate gallery as a pro-Trump mob invaded the Capitol. “But for a whole generation of staffers, this was their 9/11.” 

Three CQ Roll Call journalists looked back on their coverage of the insurrection and what’s changed since then on the Hill. Here’s what they said, edited and condensed. For more, tune into this week’s episode of the Political Theater podcast.

Bill Clark, photojournalist

Outside on the center steps, I waded into the crowd and shot photos of people standing on a Capitol Police armored vehicle, waving flags and “Stop the Steal” signs. I never even knew people got inside the Capitol until I got home that evening. All I could see was what was in front of me.

At the time, it didn’t bother me too much. I’ve covered a lot of chaotic news events, from the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in ’96, to an abortion clinic bombing, to Sept. 11. So the events of the day didn’t really shake me. But starting to look back on it, our democracy almost failed, it came really close. 

As photojournalists, we accept a certain amount of risk. They say no picture’s worth your life, but of course, they also say if you’re not close enough, the picture’s not good enough. 

One thing that sticks in my mind actually happened on Jan. 5, before the main event. A group had set up a bunch of yard signs with some policy issues they were pushing for, and some “Stop the Steal” protesters walked through and kicked over a bunch of signs. Capitol Police officers pretty much did nothing, other than, “Please don’t do that.” I feel like it set the tone for the next day.

Tom Williams, photojournalist

Cops were running past me and a couple other photographers, and they weren’t paying attention to us at all, which said to me they had much bigger problems. That was my first indication something was seriously wrong.  

I took shelter in the House chamber, up in the gallery, and the first thing I saw were some members of Congress looking very solemn. I tried to take a couple of pictures, but one of the members was like, “Who the f— told you that you can take pictures?” I was kind of stunned, because I had my press credentials. I admittedly didn’t read the room very well.

I was trying to stay down but still keep my camera above the chair. That’s when I caught Jason Crow and Susan Wild out of the corner of my eye. He was comforting her on the ground, and I took about four photos of that. I did it real fast because I was right on top of them with a 24 millimeter lens and it was a delicate situation. 

I remember reading a National Geographic article by the photographer who was on the ground for the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and what he wrote was, make sure your hands aren’t shaking, make sure you’re concentrating on your exposures. You’re in a situation that’s never happened before, so it’s on you to make sure you document it properly. 

I was in the Capitol on 9/11 when the towers were hit, and one thing I’ve always regretted is I didn’t get any good pictures, because I was too busy evacuating. I sound like an asshole saying I missed a picture. But that’s how photographers think. 

On a personal level, it’s hurt some of my friendships. I had one friend who texted me, “Are they worried about Antifa?” The fact that people stormed the Capitol doesn’t surprise me. What surprises me is people trying to put the blame on other groups. This is, like, the most recorded event ever, and they try to spin it in another way. 

Chris Cioffi, reporter

I heard one of the security people in the Senate chamber turn to his colleague and say, I think we’re going to need to get out the toilets. And I was like, is that something that you do? Apparently, there are temporary toilets. That’s when I thought, oh, maybe we’re going to be here for a while.

In the gallery behind us, unbeknownst to me, they had been telling journalists, look, you’re in or you’re out. If you come into the Senate chamber, we’ll do our best to protect you. If not, you’re on your own. 

Later, after we evacuated and were running in the tunnels, a police officer told me, you can’t go with the senators. And one of the senators who was there, Ben Ray Luján, grabbed me and said, “Oh, he’s with me.” 

Some of the reporters who were together that day, we certainly do talk about it. Even though we’re all competing for stories and scoops, there’s definitely a sense of wanting to make sure that everyone else is OK. It’s funny, we’re all working on stories about the anniversary, so we’ve been saying, “Hey, are you OK?”

It was a really scary day for a lot of people. When I was a local reporter, my first job was covering breaking news, so I would go to crime scenes, fires, crashes. You just think about it as what you’re recording, not what it actually is. Everybody processes things differently, but it’s OK to ask for help. 

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