“Alternative facts” was the description given by Donald Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway in January 2017 to the White House’s attempt to counter photographic evidence undermining its claims about the numbers who attended the president’s inauguration.
The phrase was roundly mocked at the time.
What took place on prime time television in the United States on Monday may or may not have been an attempt to generate alternative facts. But it certainly seemed aimed at creating an alternative narrative about the attack on the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, by supporters of Trump as the Houses of Congress were certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Millions of people around the world have seen footage from that day as rioters battled with police at the entrance to the Capitol.
However, although there have been several TV documentaries, court cases and a lengthy investigation by the special January 6th committee of the House of Representatives, not all the video recorded had been released.
It became a staple of conspiracy theories on the right that some things were being hidden.
After becoming House speaker in January Republican Kevin McCarthy promised to release these recordings. However, he did not put them out there generally, but gave the recordings exclusively to Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson.
Carlson is, to say the least, a public sceptic about January 6th and has suggested previously the attack was egged on by the FBI or other government agencies as some form of “false flag” operation.
On Monday, after his teams reviewed more than 40,000 hours of footage, he used the new recordings to argue there was no attempted insurrection. He continued to broadcast footage on Tuesday.
In Monday’s broadcast, Carlson sought to portray January 6th as a largely peaceful gathering and alleged that politicians on the committee that investigated the events as well as the media had “lied” about the whole thing.
He accepted a small percentage of the participants were “hooligans” who engaged in vandalism but contended most of those in the Capitol building were not insurrectionists but “sightseers”.
The programme claimed that Jacob Chansley, the man known as the Q-Anon shaman after being seen with face paint and wearing fur and horns in the Capitol, had actually been escorted around the building by police.
It also maintained that police officer Brian Sicknick, who died the day January 6th, had not been killed by rioters and showed him walking in the building after the attack took place.
Predictably, the footage generated outrage. Less predictably was that some Republicans have joined in the criticism, given Carlson is one of the biggest figures in conservative media.
The head of the Capitol police, J Thomas Manger, accused Carlson of “cherry picking” the footage, showing “calmer moments” without providing context “about the chaos and violence that happened before or during these less tense moments”.
He insisted police tried to “de-escalate tensions” by talking to rioters and that it was “outrageous” to suggest they were acting as tour guides.
A medical examiner report last April found that Sicknick died following a number of strokes the day after January 6th, but police contend his death was linked to the violence.
“The department maintains, as anyone with common sense would, that had Officer Sicknick not fought valiantly for hours on the day he was violently assaulted, Officer Sicknick would not have died the next day,” Manger said.
The Sicknick family condemned the Carlson programme and said it had “ripped our wounds wide open”.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer called Carlson’s show “one of the most shameful hours we’ve seen on cable television”. He said he was “furious” with both Carlson and McCarthy.
The leading Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, aligned himself to Manger’s comments about the programme.
“It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement official here at the Capitol thinks,” he said.
Republican senator Thom Tillis called Carlson’s claims “bullsh*t”.
The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre called the footage “shameful” on Wednesday night.
The controversy came as Fox News was already under fire over revelations that after the 2020 election, presenters and top executives privately expressed disbelief about Trump’s false claims that the White House was stolen from him by fraud even though the network continued to promote many of those claims on the air.
Further internal Fox memos have emerged on as part of a court case.
In one, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch expressed concern that top hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham “went too far” in endorsing Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.
In another, Carlson says in a text on January 4th, 2021, two days before the riot: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights.” He also wrote: “I hate him passionately … What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
The court filings were made by Dominion Voting Systems, which is seeking $1.6 billion (€1.52 billion) in damages for defamation, arguing the network knowingly broadcast untrue claims about its software.
Carlson’s new alternative narrative about January 6th may be condemned in Washington political circles. But for millions across a polarised country who only get their news from Fox and other conservative media, just like with the story of the stolen election, this may be the only version they hear.