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March 23, 2021

"Teach In" on Capitol Riots

Tara McPherson Leads Panel on January 6th Insurrection

One of the highlights of this semester was a Teach In organized by School of Cinematic Arts professor Tara McPherson that focused on the historic precursors of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that was spurred by unfounded claims by former President Donald Trump that he had lost November’s election due to fraud. The panel discussed the historical, legal and cultural contexts of the attack that left five people dead, and led to Trump becoming the first President to be impeached twice. 

Video of the Teach In is now available on the School of Cinematic Arts YouTube channel.

McPherson conceived of the Teach In as a way to address the country’s current “unprecedented challenges to its democracy.” Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of broad election fraud not only culminated in the storming of the U.S Capitol, she says, but also represents “an attack on long-held democratic principles.” The event was a way of putting the event in context, to give the audience a beginning point, to think about their own role in our democracy. The conversation largely focusing on race and racism, fascism, and media trends.

McPherson, who is the Hefner Endowed Chair of Censorship Studies and a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the Cinema School, researches and writes on topics that include digital media studies, race, gender and technology, and extremist online media. She moderated the conversation and was joined by:

Ariela Gross, the John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History at the USC Gould School of Law. Her research and writing focus on race and slavery in the United States, and she teaches Contracts, History of American Law, and Race and Gender in the Law. 


Paul Lerner, the Director of the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies and a Professor of History at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He studies Modern German and Central European history, European-Jewish history, the history of psychiatry, and fascism.

Ellen Seiter, the Nenno Endowed Chair in Television Studies and a Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the School of Cinematic Arts. Her research and writing include topics such as media industry studies, audience ethnography, and digital media studies.

Gross, who is teaching constitutional law this semester, led off with a discussion on the 14th amendment of the constitution, which she described as “one of the reconstruction amendments, part of what Eric Foner’s called ‘the second founding,’ the transformation of the constitution after the Civil War. These the amendments that ended slavery, that created national birthright citizenship, that transformed the relationship to the federal government to the states and the states to individual citizens, and they provided the basis for basic civil rights for free Black people including the right to vote and equal protection of the laws. Gross also talked about the political power Black people exercised before the Jim Crow laws were enacted.

Lerner, who developed and teaches a course on fascism, spoke about whether fascism was still present in modern day politics, giving an overview of Trump’s presidency and what it says about how we talk about fascist policies; what he called “the fascism debate” that has been raging in academia and on social media. He talked about how or whether today’s United States could or should be compared to fascist regimes, and how the history of America’s systemic racism and xenophobia . “There has been a long debate about whether a. this is fascism, b. this is an American thing, c. whether this is a global thing, whether we best understand Trump in the context of other strong men, in the world today, Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India and of course there are other examples one could cite. My contribution to this debate is to question why we really have to choose.” Lerner went on to explain that he has had a change of heart on how to apply the term in recent times.

Seiter’s presentation focused on how media deregulation led to a culmination of information dissemination that led to the Capitol Hill riots. She talked about how programming in “the public interest” were pushed into “dead times,” meaning time periods like Saturday and Sunday mornings when no one was watching. Coupled with the fact that mandates that public service information should be balanced were vetoed by Republican administrations. “The result of that was the immediate rise of Fox News,” she said. Seiter also spoke of the way that hate speech and other controversial ideas feed the coffers of social media companies, and that even the lies that are fed “to those most vulnerable “ are protected by first amendment laws. “You have to remember the supreme court has time and time again upheld free speech rights including hate speech, lies, harassing mourners of gay relatives, all kinds of unspeakable things. It is part of the first amendment. And this attempt to start to regulate is going to bump up against that in all kinds of ways.” Seiter then went on to talk about what it would take to regulate social media and combat advertising disguised as news stories.

The presentations by the professors were followed by Q&As led by McPherson.

To view the full Teach In conversation, go to: