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2 reporters who were in the Capitol on Jan. 6 talk about media coverage of the attack

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today when we reached Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour, she was, let's say, multitasking.

LISA DESJARDINS: I'm so sorry. This is actually crazy. I have a good excuse. First of all...

CORNISH: And she had a really good excuse. Nearly a year ago, she was reporting live from the U.S. Capitol as rioters entered the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESJARDINS: That protestor has now opened the front door of the Capitol to let his fellow protestors in. There is a single Capitol Police officer.

There were two rioters that followed me on January 6, and DOJ - their sentencing hearing is right now.

CORNISH: Lisa Desjardins was actually trying to listen to that hearing, where, by the way, they were sentenced to 30 days in prison after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges.

DESJARDINS: I exchanged words with them at some point, but I don't remember what they were. It was all a haze. And there were a lot of rioters that were talking to me or saying things to me or shouting at me. And I used a variety of things I would say to them to kind of try and calm things down, make sure they wouldn't come after me.

CORNISH: Sarah Ferris of Politico had a different experience. She was inside the House of Representatives chamber, where lawmakers were crouched on the floor of the gallery. And she remembers them praying, fearing for their lives.

SARAH FERRIS: That was the moment when I realized that people were going to die that day.

CORNISH: Ferris has been in touch with those representatives since, and she says that day changed them.

FERRIS: A lot of them are engaged in this giant group text, where they trade support tips. They trade therapy. They're talking about getting together and doing potlucks. And, I mean, this has truly become a bond for the group.

CORNISH: Now, we actually spoke with congressional reporters Sarah Ferris and Lisa Desjardins a few days after the violence at the Capitol. Now, nearly a year later, we've called them up again to see how the events of January 6 have lingered for the people who work in Congress. There was such anger immediately after that day, especially from Democrats angry that GOP rhetoric had endangered their lives. I asked Desjardins if tensions in Congress had gotten any better since then.

DESJARDINS: I really thought that all of those raw feelings, which we saw grow and become more raw - February, March, even - I thought there would be a point in the summer where the Democrats who couldn't even look at a fellow member of Congress who was a Republican without feeling just raw anger - that that would subside. But I was very surprised that it really didn't subside all through the summer into the fall. I think people have taken a little bit of a breath just this last two weeks that I haven't felt for the rest of the year. But that said, underneath it all, those raw emotions are just as present. And for some of them, they're - they've been growing.

CORNISH: Lisa, I want to stay with you for a minute. Do lawmakers even fundamentally agree about the severity and significance of January 6? - Because I think to the public, you're watching Republicans block the creation of that independent commission to investigate what happened. So few are cooperating with the House select committee's investigation. Are we looking at just party politics, or is there actually a disagreement on what happened?

DESJARDINS: I think the simple answer is they do not agree about what happened. But it really is a little more complicated because there are a lot of politics involved. I think we will see both parties bringing up aspects of January 6 in their runs to the midterm, Republicans accusing Democrats of being political about it and, of course, Democrats saying that Republicans are extreme and that they are a problem, a danger for democracy. But I think that there - the truth of it is that there are a large group of Republicans who believe it was a dangerous day and who will tell you that off record. And they will say something different on record. And that leads to a very complicated situation for public dialogue and for members of Congress themselves to sort out the day. Most members - most Republicans and Democrats will say that the day was dangerous; it was a problem; violence is bad. They will say those three things. But then you get into the deeper context about what it means and who is to blame. And there, you have a real divide. And some of it is just political, not real divide.

CORNISH: Sarah, I want to ask you about what the building has been like in this last year since the riot. We know in those following weeks, there was so much security around the Capitol. What is the normal today when it comes to security and being in the building?

FERRIS: It certainly doesn't feel like there is a normal. Of course, we're still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has really just hit another surge in the Capitol in the last couple of weeks. So the building on January 6 itself will be empty, not just because the House technically isn't in session but because so many staff - hundreds, if not thousands of staff - have been told to work from home because of this new variant. And - but even in the weeks and months before that, the Capitol never was as full as it was before the pandemic. Anybody who was in the building that day, anybody who was in or near the chamber, even folks who weren't, who were watching their workplace be desecrated from afar, the mental aspect of this has been really intense and has changed the building in a lot of ways and not just staffers - members, too. I've talked to many Democratic members who say January 6 was a reason that they are retiring, and that's just the truth.

CORNISH: What are you two going to be watching going forward? Obviously, there are cases that are still moving through the courts. But it's also now heading into midterm elections, and I'm sure that could really kind of shift where this particular story goes. Lisa, can we start with you?

DESJARDINS: I'm really worried about the us-versus-them factor right now because I don't see anyone emerging to get us out of that. I see both sides. And I'm not saying that both sides are equal. You know, they're not. However, I think that those on the right who are trying to justify January 6, trying to whitewash it, you know, they are trying to justify that by saying that they are under attack. But on the left, they, I think, understandably, don't want to engage with people they feel attacked them. So when does engagement come? Where do the temperatures start to go down? When do average Americans in the middle of this country - can they have a conversation where they don't look at each other based on how they voted in 2020 or 2016 because it's going the other way? And I think there's also too much reward for politicians who say and do extreme things. And there's just not a conversation about anyone having done anything wrong. There's - everyone's locking into the idea that they are right, the other side is wrong, and it worries me.

CORNISH: Sarah Ferris, last word to you.

FERRIS: I think about what could happen on January 6, 2023. It's almost certain that the Republicans will be taking back control of the House, and a lot of Democratic members told me they wanted to set a really important historical example on January 6, 2022, as the year mark, with somber testimony and memorials. And they tell me, 2023 they don't think is going to look that way. They're afraid that Republican leadership will try to brush over this, gloss over this, pivot back to - why weren't the Democrats in charge of the security preventing this? - and making it about security lapses by Democrats, who'd been in control of Congress, versus what actually happened and versus making sure that this sort of extreme behavior doesn't happen among their supporters. And so that's what a lot of Democrats - that's what - that's on their minds - is as this anniversary comes, they're looking ahead to the next one, when Republicans will be in charge and whether or not they can figure out a message about what exactly happened that day in a unifying way.

CORNISH: That's Sarah Ferris from Politico and, from PBS NewsHour, Lisa Desjardins. Thank you both for speaking with us.

FERRIS: Thanks for having us.

DESJARDINS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETIT BISCUIT'S "YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.