HOUSTON – When the live streamer known as Dick NeCarlo entered the U.S. Capitol last week with a mob incited by President Trump, he said he wasn’t there to join the insurrection but to report on the mayhem shaking the nation.
But NeCarlo was treading a blurred line between journalism and activism for a far-right cause. He and colleague Nicholas Ochs were dispatched by Murder the Media, a right-wing company based in Monte Rio, Calif., that posts video and livestreams. NeCarlo donned an MT Media shirt and hat. Ochs – host of “The Ochs Report” and leader of the far-right nationalist Proud Boys in Hawaii – wore an MT Media badge.
They interviewed pro-Trump extremists and followed them into the Capitol. The two – who view themselves as gonzo journalists in the image of the late Hunter S. Thompson – paused for a photograph in front of a door where someone had scrawled “Murder the Media.” They identified themselves as reporters to police, who didn’t stop them, NeCarlo said.
“One did ask us when we were going to leave,” he said later by phone. “We said we’ll leave when we’re done reporting on it – when we’ve got our scoop.”
But there was less journalism and more far-right sentiment evident in video the two men soon posted: “Congress stopped the vote when we stormed the Capitol. As we’ve been saying all day: We came here to stop the steal,” says Ochs.
“We did it!” NeCarlo replied. “That’s what I came down here to do. That’s what we did.”
Some mainstream journalists were threatened and beaten by the crowd, but NeCarlo and Ochs emerged unscathed.
The next day, Ochs was arrested by the FBI on federal charges of unlawful entry into a restricted building. His Twitter account was shut down. NeCarlo continued to discuss the siege online.
Their actions crystalized the often overlapping roles of many “citizen journalists” in a world where technology and politics collide in promoting a variety of movements, including antifa anarchy, white supremacist venom and marches against racial injustice.
“What I did was journalism: Follow the events and show people what happened,” said NeCarlo, who uses a scrambled version of his real name, which he declined to disclose given the crackdown. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”
During the last year’s Trump rallies and Black Lives Matter protests across a polarized America, writers and videographers not aligned with traditional news organizations have emerged as valuable – if partisan – news sources. Their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and livestreams on websites like Twitch and DLive have attracted hundreds of thousands of followers looking for on-the-ground, up-to-the-minute reporting. Many have used their streams to raise money for the causes they cover.
As the lines have blurred between advocacy journalism and activism, this breed of reporter, which has a deep distrust of the mainstream media, has increasingly faced arrest and censorship, culminating in a crackdown after the Capitol siege that left some arrested, others without online platforms. The attack on the Capitol also raised questions about who is considered a journalist, and whether the 1st Amendment applies when the law is broken.
“Not everyone qualifies as a journalist,” said David Hudson, an assistant law professor at Nashville’s Belmont University and a 1st Amendment fellow at the nonprofit Freedom Forum. “Even in the age of citizen journalism and participatory journalism – and no doubt there have been some valuable contributions from some citizen journalists – there has to be some limit.”