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One journalist's experience of being drawn into one of the largest Jan. 6 trials

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Yesterday, the leader of the far-right group the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in the insurrection of January 6. And this morning, a U.S. district court judge announced a prison sentence for Jessica Watkins, an Oath Keeper who was found guilty for breaking into the Capitol that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSICA WATKINS: We have a good group. We got about 30, 40 of us. We're sticking together and sticking to the plan.

SUMMERS: On The Media reporter Micah Loewinger captured that audio of Watkins from a walkie-talkie app called Zello as he watched the insurrection play out from his home in New York. The recording later became a key piece of evidence in Watkins' trial. In this weekend's episode of On The Media, Loewinger grapples with the role his work played in helping send Watkins to prison.

MICAH LOEWINGER, BYLINE: The story of my January 6 reporting began long before that day and dragged on long after.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So what do you got, kind of experience you got? Military? Law enforcement? Medical?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thirty-one Bravo, military police. I know a lot about weapons, munitions and a fair amount of gear.

LOEWINGER: I listened to countless hours of militia chatter like this on Zello throughout 2020 as extremist groups used conspiracy theories about Black Lives Matter and Antifa to recruit new members.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's like a second job. It's us or tyranny. It's us or failure. It's us or a post-American world. And are you all in? Over.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I ain't got nothing holding me back for it. If it kills me, it kills me.

LOEWINGER: These violent fantasies grew louder and louder, which is how I knew to monitor militia channels on January 6, 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATKINS: We're one block away from the Capitol now. I'm probably going to go silent when I get there because I'm going to be a little busy.

LOEWINGER: This is Jessica Watkins, a member of the Oath Keepers. She was found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, obstruction of an official proceeding, interfering with law enforcement officers during a civil disorder and conspiracy to prevent an officer from discharging duties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATKINS: We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it. They're throwing grenades. They're freaking shooting people with paintballs. But we're in here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Get it, Jess. This is what we [expletive] lived up for, everything we [expletive] trained for.

LOEWINGER: You can see why federal prosecutors wanted to play this audio for the jury. But when they asked me if I would testify voluntarily to verify its authenticity, my lawyer said no on my behalf. I thought that future sources would be less likely to trust me if it looked like I was, you know, buddy-buddy with the feds. I was already hearing about a conspiracy theory that January 6 was an inside job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIE KELLY: We need a lot more answers about how many FBI agents not just were involved that day but months beforehand, including the infiltration in these alleged militia groups.

LOEWINGER: This far-right reporter also wrote an article suggesting that I had been tipped off by undercover agents so that the feds could entrap well-meaning patriots. Needless to say, that's not true, and I didn't want to encourage any more conspiracy theories by participating in the trial. But then the Department of Justice came back with paperwork.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

BROOKE GLADSTONE, BYLINE: Hi, Micah.

LOEWINGER: Hey, Brooke. Do you have a quick second?

GLADSTONE: Sure.

LOEWINGER: OK, so I think I was just subpoenaed.

GLADSTONE: Call me back in five.

LOEWINGER: OK. Sounds good. Bye.

GLADSTONE: Bye.

LOEWINGER: Brooke Gladstone, the host of On The Media, asked me to document my experience as a federal witness, a rare and fraught experience for a journalist.

GLADSTONE: The value of your testimony is limited. They're asking you for a little bit about your process of recording it, but you're not giving them any information beyond what any of our listeners heard.

LOEWINGER: Brooke thought I should just relax and enjoy the attention on my work. But I felt I had done my job, and I thought it was time for the feds to do their job without me. There's also a complex history of the Department of Justice seeking to compel journalists to reveal their confidential sources.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RENEE MONTAGNE: A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times was sent to jail yesterday after she refused to identify a confidential source. Judith Miller has been found in contempt of court.

LOEWINGER: Unlike Miller, I had no source to protect. I really had nothing to hide. Going to jail would be a pointless stunt. So I complied with the subpoena and took the stand in the first of the Oath Keeper trials last October.

ROGER PARLOFF: You sounded uncomfortable in a good way - you know, like you were walking a line 'cause you're a journalist, and you don't want to sound like you're in there for the government.

LOEWINGER: Roger Parloff, senior editor for Lawfare. He watched my testimony, Jessica Watkins' testimony and testimony from an FBI agent who took the stand to play the Zello audio for the jury.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATKINS: We have a good group. We got about 30, 40 of us.

PARLOFF: What you hear on that tape...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATKINS: We're sticking together and sticking to the plan.

PARLOFF: ...Is unambiguous in terms of a plan to invade the Capitol. So it was a very powerful piece of evidence.

LOEWINGER: If it was so powerful, then why did Jessica get off easier than Kelly Meggs and Stewart Rhodes? They were charged with seditious conspiracy, and she was not.

PARLOFF: Correct. Now, she was convicted of two other conspiracies, of course. But as far as the seditious conspiracy, they apparently didn't feel there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You know, she did testify, and there were aspects of her biography that were sympathetic.

LOEWINGER: What about it stuck out to you?

PARLOFF: Well, you know, she's a transgender woman, and her parents had disavowed her. And when she, you know, was in the military and she was beginning to have these thoughts about who she was, another soldier confronted her, you know, called her crude names. She was afraid for her life. She went AWOL. She was discharged. So she really didn't fit in anywhere. And then Covid hits. She ran a bar, and so the bar had to close. And she was in hard straits. So I think the jury could have felt for her as leading a very, very difficult life.

LOEWINGER: It was my impression that she was less involved in a lot of the higher-level planning as opposed to Meggs and Rhodes.

PARLOFF: In fact, she was a little bit left out at times. Regardless of what role she played in the planning, she was one of the most violent because she led her group toward the Senate side once she got inside and really led them in a violent push against a group of riot police.

LOEWINGER: I have complicated feelings about participating in Watkins' trial. I believe there should be consequences for the illegal and anti-democratic violence that took place on January 6. But I also think that our justice system is deeply flawed. It can be racist and cruel and often fails to rehabilitate people. I didn't get into this line of work to play such an active role in locking people up. I'm proud my work had an impact and that I could help show America what the militia movement really represents. But I realize now that I was naive. I want to believe that the end game of journalism is truth, but sometimes it's prison.

SUMMERS: Micah Loewinger is a reporter for WNYC's On The Media. Subscribe to the show to hear his latest episode about the 1972 Supreme Court ruling that gave the government the authority to force reporters to reveal confidential sources.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Micah Loewinger