The Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January created a trove of self-incriminating evidence, thoroughly documenting their actions and words in videos and social media posts. Now some of the camera-toting people in the crowd are claiming they were only there to record history as journalists, not to join a deadly insurrection.
It’s unlikely that any of the self-proclaimed journalists can mount a viable defense on the First Amendment’s free speech grounds, experts say. They face long odds if video captured them acting more like rioters than impartial observers. But as the internet has broadened and blurred the definition of a journalist, some appear intent on trying.
At least eight defendants charged in the Jan. 6 riot have identified themselves as a journalist or a documentary filmmaker, including three people arrested this month, according to a review of court records in nearly 400 federal cases.
The insurrection led to the deaths of five people, including a police officer and there were hundreds of injuries. Some rioters manhandled and menaced the reporters and photographers who are credentialed to cover Congress and were trying to cover the mayhem that day. A group of journalists had photographic equipment stolen and destroyed outside the building.
One defendant, Shawn Witzemann, told authorities he was inside the Capitol during the riot as part of his work in livestreaming video at protests and has since argued that he was there as a journalist. That explanation did not sway the FBI. The plumber from Farmington, New Mexico, is charged with joining in demonstrating in the Capitol while Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory over Donald Trump.
“I seek truth. I speak to sources. I document. I provide commentary. It’s everything that a journalist is,” Witzemann told a New Mexico television station after his arrest April 6.
Witzemann’s nightly news show is titled the “Armenian Council for Truth in Journalism” — satirically, his attorney says. On its YouTube page, which has just over 300 subscribers, the show says it “delivers irreverent and thought provoking commentary and analysis, on an eclectic range of subjects.”