Evan Hill was back in Madison for the 2020 winter holidays, sitting at his parents’ dining room table, when the events that would consume his professional life for the next several months exploded.
Hill, 36, a 2003 Madison West High School graduate, is a member of The New York Times’ Visual Investigations team, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for uncovering the bombing by Russia of four hospitals in Syria.
Hill lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., but with Times employees working remotely, he’d extended his 2020 Christmas break into January.
That day at his parents’ dining room table was Jan. 6, 2021. Certification of the 2020 presidential election was taking place at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
“We were monitoring it,” Hill said last week. “We expected there to be the big rally and the protests. But none of us expected what it turned into.”
Hill was looking at Twitter and other social platforms and began to see videos of pushing and shoving at the Capitol. His parents turned on the TV.
What they soon saw — what the world saw — led to a virtual meeting the next day of the Visual Investigations unit.
“We discussed what we should do with this momentous event,” Hill says. “Some of us lobbied that this called for something new. ‘Let’s do a full reconstruction of Jan. 6. It’s a unique event in American history.’ By Jan. 8, we’d started work on what we called the Capitol Reconstruct.”
Last week, the Times’ 40-minute documentary film on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, “Day of Rage“, won a prestigious Alfred J. duPont-Columbia University Award. It was also among 15 short documentaries shortlisted for the 2022 Academy Awards but was not one of the five final nominees announced Feb. 8.
Recalling watching the events of Jan. 6 unfold at his parents’ home in Madison, Hill says the only feeling he can compare it to was 9/11, when he was in an art class at West High glued to National Public Radio as the events unfolded.
“The sensation was the same on Jan. 6,” Hill says. “Just trying to comprehend what was going on.”
After graduating from West, Hill attended Northwestern University, during which time he spent a semester abroad at The American University in Cairo. He’d learned Arabic at Northwestern and put himself on the journalism map covering the Arab spring uprising in 2011 for Al Jazeera English.
I first spoke to Hill that February. He was standing in Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was quiet, but a few days earlier there had been violent protests. A man with blood stains on his white head wrap introduced himself to Hill and said, “Remember my name. If I die here tonight, you will tell our story.”
Still, Hill wasn’t convinced his future was in journalism. Might it be more meaningful to try to shape events rather than report on them? He worked for a time for Human Rights Watch, then enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
When Hill graduated in 2019, The New York Times was trying to grow its nascent Visual Investigations team. It was perhaps the one job that could have brought Hill back into journalism.
A mutual friend put Hill in touch with Malachy Browne, a founding member of the unit, and he was hired.
Browne co-directed and narrated “Day of Rage.” Hill has a writer and producer credit, as do several others in what was clearly a large team effort.
“The challenge of Jan. 6,” Hill says, “was the multitude of media available to look at. It was very unlike our other investigations where you’re spending weeks or months trying to get one visual. This was too many visuals. The challenge for us was turning it into something people could understand.”
The journalists eventually examined thousands of videos — social media posts from rioters, police body camera and Capitol surveillance footage, radio recordings and more — and plugged them into a master spreadsheet that became a timeline of the entire day.
The team’s investigation uncovered more points where the Capitol was breached — eight — than had previously been identified. And while organized extremists certainly spurred the crowd on, they did not make up the bulk of the rioters.
“The videos showed us they were for the most part spontaneous, disorganized,” Hill says. “You might say average Trump supporters who were swept up in the moment and were acting opportunistically based on what was happening at any given point.”
Watching “Day of Rage” should disabuse anyone of the idea that what happened Jan. 6 was little more than a peaceful protest that got a bit out of hand. The film is chilling, its conclusion irrefutable.
“This was an effort,” Hill says, “to forcibly storm the Capitol and halt the certification of Joe Biden on the instigation of former President Trump.”
The acclaim that comes with last week’s duPont award, and being shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, while welcome, is not what drove Hill and his colleagues to produce “Day of Rage.”
“It takes a lot out of you,” he says. “But it’s worth it. That we created a document of that day that will stand the test of time, and be useful for people to see decades from now, to understand what happened.”
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