It’s just over three weeks since ABC television Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour proudly tweeted that “the brilliant duo” — presenter Sarah Ferguson and producer Tony Jones — had been dispatched to the US “to cover Trump’s American carnage”.
The announcement came as some surprise. For starters, on my count the ABC has three Washington, DC-based journalists. Moreover, by the time the “brilliant duo” departed Sydney on January 15, the Capitol riot of January 6 was already in the past. Instead, contemporary political news in the US turned on the early days of President Joe Biden’s Democratic administration.
This was demonstrated by the fact, on January 20, Biden’s inauguration passed without interruption by pro-Trump demonstrations in the US capital or key American states.
Indeed, the only violent protests occurred in Portland, Oregon, when extreme left-wing Antifa demonstrators attacked state Democratic Party headquarters along with a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. This was not covered in Ferguson’s report — it was not the kind of carnage that Neighbour had in mind.
On Thursday last week, Neighbour announced that Ferguson had come up with a “riveting piece of reportage — Downfall: The Last Days of President Trump”. The previous time the word Downfall was associated with a political figure was the 2004 film starring Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler.
When I presented my one and only Four Corners program (on Bob Hawke’s autobiography in August 1994), the producer was of the view that, whenever possible, reporters should be heard rather than seen, a view with which I concurred wholeheartedly.
It seems that those days have passed in favour of the presenter as personality. In any event, that’s what it seemed as Ferguson appeared constantly in the program in both describing the past and predicting the future.
Her essential position was that, on January 6, Donald Trump “brought US democracy to the brink of destruction”, so much so that “serious people here have been using the dreaded phrase ‘civil war’.”
Civil wars have been rare events in Western societies in recent years. Those who have studied the appalling carnage of the American civil war (1861-65) and the Spanish civil war (1936-39) when two armed militias clashed will understand that what occurred on January 6 was a long way from civil war.
As it turned out, Downfall did not live up to Neighbour’s spin. Ferguson and Jones obtained three key interviews: Mick Mulvaney (who is occasionally seen on Australian media), Elizabeth Neumann and Enrique Tarrio.
Mulvaney, a one-time chief-of-staff to Trump, resigned from the administration on January 6. Naturally, these days he is a Trump critic. So is Neumann, who resigned as assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security last year.
Mulvaney criticised Trump, but not to the extent that Ferguson seems to have expected. For example, he said: “Was it incitement to riot? I don’t know but he (Trump) was not blameless in what happened on January 6. And that I think is going to be his legacy and that’s what makes us all very, very disappointed.” These days, former vice-president Mike Pence is Mulvaney’s political hero. Fair enough.
So Mulvaney did not declare that Trump was engaged in an incitement to riot. Neither did Neumann. Then there was Tarrio. Fans of Ferguson might have expected her to tear strips off the Proud Boys leader but he held his own. Tarrio was prevented by authorities from being in Washington on January 6.
Ferguson insisted to Tarrio that the Proud Boys were into violence. He did not directly deny this. His essential point seemed to be that there were a lot of potentially violent groups in the US — on the far left and the far right. But he was emphatic that the Proud Boys did not intend to lynch anyone on January 6, contrary to Ferguson’s suggestion.
What was missing from Downfall was the segment from Trump’s speech outside the White House, at the 18-minute mark, where he urged his supporters to “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” at the Capitol building.
Downfall contains much valuable footage, taken from various sources, of the riot in action along with accounts by photographers and journalists who witnessed the occasion at first hand. Some protesters can be heard calling for US house Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be confronted and for Pence to be hanged. None of those interviewed on the program stated that killings would have occurred but some said that this “probably” would have happened. It remains to be seen what charges authorities lay against rioters who have been arrested.
Downfall ends on January 20, Inauguration Day, with Ferguson reporting from the Washington suburb of Anacostia, the poorest neighbourhood in the US capital. She runs the line that the riot and all that were primarily about racism. This despite the fact her own program reported that the prime targets of the riot were Pence and Pelosi — both white. Moreover, Tarrio, the child of Cuban American parents in Florida, identifies as Afro-Cuban. Not white at all.
Ferguson interviewed Arianna Evans, a young African-American who is a member of the Freedom Fighters DC. She opposes Trump but also Biden and regards the Proud Boys as a manifestation of “white privilege”.
Sure, many of the rioters were white — but most did not present in any way as privileged. One phenomenon of the Trump presidency is that he gained more support from the African-American and Latino communities than any of his Republican predecessors and his base is built on underprivileged white supporters.
Ferguson regards Washington as “the corrupted citadel of a democracy”. Sure the US is, and long has been, a divided nation. But millions still want to settle there. And most considered Americans do not see what they regard as “the land of the free” as being on the brink of a civil war. But, then, they live in the US.