Cassidy Hutchinson, the January 6 committee, and the art—and artifice—of the hype

“BREAKING NEWS: The Jan. 6 committee abruptly scheduled a session for tomorrow to hear ‘recently obtained evidence’ and witness testimony.” “The committee released names of witnesses for *prior* hearings. They’re NOT doing so ahead of tomorrow. It adds a layer of intrigue and hints at a blockbuster.” “I think we have more information right now as to who it’s not gonna be as opposed to who it is gonna be.” “There are a number of excellent reporters who have been on the Jan. 6 beat for the last year and a half. That not a single one has (to my knowledge) gotten the go-ahead to reveal tomorrow’s testimony/witnesses yet is…kind of amazing.” “NEWS: Cassidy HUTCHINSON will be the surprise witness at the Jan. 6 hearing tomorrow.” “What’s not known is why the committee is rushing her out into public today.” “I’m told the panel would not have called such a sudden hearing (members flew in last-minute from across the country) unless it would contain significant revelations.” “BETTER BE A BIG DEAL.”

IT WAS A BIG DEAL AND IT WILL GROW BIGGER! Thank you, Cassidy Hutchinson.” “We thought we knew everything about this day.” “Just absolutely incredible.” “In an era defined by blockbuster political hearings—James Comey, Robert Mueller, Brett Kavanaugh, Michael Cohen and Fiona Hill, to name a few—Cassidy Hutchinson and the House Jan. 6 committee successfully delivered what few others have.” “One of the most stunning offerings of testimony in American history.” “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” “I’ve covered politics a long time. I don’t think there has been testimony like this…since Watergate.” “This lived up to the hype of what I had been told about this witness. If you want to make the John Dean comparison…this feels that compelling.” “This is an historic day. Our descendants are going to ask us what we know about Cassidy Hutchinson. That’s a name that they will know.” “Hutch, Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: How one woman’s bullseye testimony took down the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang that couldn’t shoot straight, by Maureen Dowd.”

New from CJR: A profile of Punchbowl

Between these two rounds of media hype—okay, the last headline is a parody—Hutchinson, a twenty-six-year-old former aide to Mark Meadows, who was President Trump’s chief of staff on January 6, appeared before the panel investigating the events of that day, and justified it. (The hype, not the events of January 6.) She said that, in the weeks prior to the insurrection, she’d had to wipe ketchup off the White House walls after Trump learned that his attorney general had publicly refuted his election lies and became so angry that he threw a plate. She said Meadows told her, in the days prior to the insurrection, that January 6 might get “real, real bad,” then under-reacted when it did. She said that Trump told Secret Service agents to let people with weapons into the rally that immediately preceded the insurrection because “they’re not here to hurt me” and their presence would make the crowd look bigger on TV. She said she’d heard that when Trump was driven back to the White House after the rally—and not to the Capitol, as he’d demanded—he tried to grab the steering wheel, yelling, “I’m the f–ing president, take me up to the Capitol now.” At the end of the hearing, Rep. Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chair, suggested that Trump associates have tried to intimidate its witnesses.

Prosecutorial pundits were quick to suggest that a legal vise might finally be tightening around Trump; a former deputy to Ken Starr told Peter Baker, of the New York Times, that Hutchinson’s testimony was the “smoking gun” needed to charge Trump with seditious conspiracy. Others hyped the hearing’s significance in more general terms. Bob Woodward—who titled one of his many Trump books Rage, because that’s what Trump inspires in people—called the testimony “the first concrete series of examples of him resorting to rage and violence himself.” Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian on MSNBC, said that “as of today, irrevocably, it is very clear and very concrete: this was a president who led a coup d’état and an insurrection against the people of the United States.” We “keep saying this,” CNN’s Kyung Lah said, “but it remains true each time. It was even worse than we imagined.”

I have often written, in this newsletter, that this has not been true each time; quite commonly, new reporting hyped by members of the press—many of whom seem to obsess over what’s secret and shun what’s obvious—as evidence that January 6 was worse than we imagined has been far less significant than what we saw with our own eyes at the time. It has always been abundantly clear and concrete that Trump led an attempted coup. In my view, however, Hutchinson’s testimony was a rare exception to this rule: she showed that January 6 was worse than we imagined—or, at least, than we knew. She enhanced the public’s understanding of the sheer depth of Trump’s responsibility for the attack on the Capitol, and illustrated it with some truly eye-popping details. The steering-wheel metaphor is so exquisite you couldn’t write it.

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That Hutchinson’s testimony delivered was, of course, a victory for the committee, which has consistently shown in recent weeks that it has mastered the art of the hype. The committee had already been lauded, in a series of recent articles, for imbuing its first televised hearings with the tight, gripping narrative arc of a TV miniseries, a far cry from the bloated, pompous proceduralism of hearings past; yesterday—as James Poniewozik, the TV critic at the Times, put it—the committee added what’s known in the biz as a “bottle episode,” breaking the narrative to zoom in on a single character. The reason for the hearing’s surprise last-minute organization still isn’t totally clear and could reflect many factors—the committee’s sincere eagerness to put new evidence in front of the American people, Hutchinson’s security, Hutchinson’s recent change of lawyer, a desire to preempt possible witness tampering—but it’s not outlandish to speculate, as some media watchers have, that the surprise itself was the point: an act of stagecraft to amp up the drama. That was certainly the effect. Poniewozik likened the hearing to Watergate “as punched up by the writers’ room of 24.”

As I’ve also written, while media critics often scorn efforts to judge serious political proceedings as TV drama, doing so isn’t inherently trivial; the problem, to my mind, has lain more in many pundits’ shallow, artificial conception of what makes for dramatic TV. The January 6 committee, unlike many of its forebears, has managed to put on hearings that are actually good TV while also meeting the expectations of such pundits while also laying out and hammering home important truths. Yesterday was the apogee of that achievement.

And yet the act of judging democracy by televisual standards does have to stop somewhere. For a scripted series, “the price of success,” as Poniewozik put it, “is raising the bar” for future episodes; in the real world, if future January 6 hearings don’t match yesterday’s dramatic standards, they shouldn’t be written off as flops. (This is West Wing world, not Westworld.) More important, while yesterday’s hearing also cleared the factual, worse-than-we-knew bar, it never actually needed to—that bar is extremely high because what we already know of Trump’s conduct is utterly devastating. Some of the details Hutchinson laid out might be important in a future legal case against Trump—but they might not be necessary to that case, and journalistic accountability need not always be concerned with meeting legal standards. It matters, of course, whether what Hutchinson said is true, and journalists should try to corroborate her account—already, various outlets are reporting that the Secret Service agent present when Trump allegedly grabbed the wheel of his car is prepared to testify under oath that that never happened—but we shouldn’t obsess over it as if the committee’s probe and the broader January 6 story hinge upon it. On TV, exquisite metaphors don’t need to be true. In real life, they do. But in neither case are they more important than the deeper truth they’re illustrating.

I’ve made this point before, too. If I’m laboring it in a tedious and repetitive way now, it’s no more tedious and repetitive than the way many journalists and pundits hype novelty and optics around big media events like yesterday’s hearing. In this case, at least, the hype was justified. But it mostly wasn’t necessary; Hutchinson’s testimony spoke for itself. By cleverly catering to the media’s instinct for hype ahead of time, the committee ensured attention. But our instinct for hype is, ultimately, what leads us to keep moving the goalposts on stories whose central truth is already well-established—a depressing, repetitive trend that will not serve the committee, or any of us, so well in the long run. Raising the bar should not be the price of terrifying truths.

Below, more on the committee and DC media:

  • What did the Fox say? After refusing to broadcast the January 6 panel’s first hearing in prime time (it aired on the much lower rated Fox Business instead), Fox News has carried subsequent daytime hearings live and did so again yesterday, even though, as the AP’s David Bauder put it, “a striking number of the network’s viewers have made clear they’d rather be doing something else.” The anchors covering yesterday’s hearing on Fox described it, variously, as “riveting” and “jaw dropping,” with one adding that it did “move the ball.” Later, Fox’s opinion hosts came on air and trashed the whole thing.
  • Ron John, it’s not on: Last week—after the committee revealed that the office of Ron Johnson, the Republican senator for Wisconsin, was implicated in a 2020 scheme to pass a list of fake electors to Vice President Mike Pence—Johnson told waiting reporters that he was on the phone and couldn’t talk, only for one of them to point out that they could see his phone screen and that he wasn’t actually talking to anyone. Afterward, Insider’s Warren Rojas asked other Republican senators what they thought of Johnson’s failed evasion effort, and found that most were amused by it. “While none of them copped to using the pretend phone call trick themselves—a tactic members on both sides of the aisle readily employ when they spot press coming—several commented on common practices like making bureaucracy work for them (talk to my scheduler, call the press shop, etc.) or setting down ground rules (local press only, no hallway interviews).”
  • New from CJR: We’re out this morning with a new story by Adam Piore that goes deep on Punchbowl, an insidery news outlet in DC. “In a town obsessed with power, the people behind Punchbowl are obsessed with being the most obsessive,” Piore writes. “It’s a model that probably won’t do much to bridge the growing gulf between Americans and the lawmakers who represent them in Washington, or to reset political journalism in the aftermath of Donald Trump, a deadly insurrection, and other threats to democracy.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Ukraine ‘fatigue,’ and what the press can—and can’t—do about it

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, arrives back from a break as she testifies as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)