The Media Today

The complicated conversation about the impact of the January 6 hearings

June 21, 2022
Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Over the weekend, with the House committee investigating January 6 having arrived at the midway point in its schedule of televised hearings, ABC News and Ipsos jointly published a poll, conducted since the latest hearing, with an eye-catching finding: nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said that Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the insurrection. That number led ABC’s story on the poll and drove headlines across a bevy of other major outlets as well as chatter on TV, where it kicked off the conversation on MSNBC’s Morning Joe yesterday. “We have heard for so long now—for good reason—that the truth doesn’t matter. We’ve heard about how conspiracy theories have choked rationality and reason from our political debate. Well, this morning we have a poll that shows that, actually, six in ten of our neighbors do seem to care,” Joe Scarborough, the show’s eponymous host, said. “This is starting to sink in,” he added, of the gravity of January 6. “This committee has gotten the truth out to the American public, and—even at the beginning of summer—they’re listening. That’s shocking to me.”

Before the hearings had even begun, whether the public would listen was a prominent concern among media types, with various commentators expressing differing degrees of optimism that the committee would succeed in cutting through our noisy, divided media ecosystem—and, if so, that its findings might focus minds and foster consensus. Since the hearings began, media watchers have returned often to those questions, parsing a range of metrics that might help in answering them. So far, they point to a public response that defies easy characterization.

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If polling has been one prominently cited metric, ratings have been another, measuring attention if not reaction. The first televised hearing, which took place nearly two weeks ago in prime time, drew at least twenty million viewers across various TV networks—a lower figure than for other marquee political events, like a presidential debate or State of the Union address, but much higher than typical for a congressional hearing, and comparable to cultural touchstones like a Sunday night football game; Eric Deggans, a TV critic at NPR, called the audience “pretty significant.” The ratings for the two subsequent hearings last week were much lower, even as Fox News chose to broadcast them, having opted to stick with its prime-time opinion programs on night one (shunting hearing coverage to the much lower-rated Fox Business)—but the latter two hearings were held during the day, so this was to be expected. (The change of slot might also have had something to do with Fox’s decision to tune in.) Various critics, meanwhile, have pointed out that the ratings, as the AP’s David Bauder put it yesterday, “don’t begin to measure the true reach of what is being said” at the hearings, with clips of key moments reaching many more people online and via other TV shows. Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor, told Bauder that the hearings seem, unusually, to have been designed with modern media consumption habits in mind.

Journalists have also sought other, less quantitative input on both the attention and reaction questions. On CNN Sunday, Dana Bash asked Fred Upton, a retiring Republican congressman who voted to impeach Trump after January 6, whether he thinks that the committee’s case is resonating with moderate Republicans and independents, and Upton said he thinks that it is; on the same show, Alyssa Farah Griffin, a Trump staffer turned critic, predicted that the committee’s work would have an impact on the 2024 presidential election should Trump try to run again, and over on ABC, Chris Christie agreed. Both Griffin and Christie, however, expressed skepticism that the hearings would have much effect on the upcoming midterms. And various major outlets have recently published interviews in which voters in various parts of the country have testified to already having made up their minds about January 6, if they care at all.

This brings us back to the ABC/Ipsos poll, which itself shows in microcosm how tricky it can be to pin down public reaction to the hearings. While nearly 60 percent of respondents wanted Trump criminally charged, this figure was already pretty high, at 52 percent, in an ABC poll conducted before the televised hearings began—and the new poll shows that among Republican respondents, only 19 percent think Trump should be charged. Only a third of respondents to the new poll, meanwhile, said that they are following the hearings at all closely, with less than 10 percent following very closely. (This finding topped Ipsos’s write-up of the poll, if not ABC’s.) And this is just one poll, as Jonathan Swan, of Axios, was quick to point out on Morning Joe yesterday, tempering Scarborough’s optimism about the hearings’ cut-through.

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Then again, Scarborough argued yesterday that the reactions of relatively small proportions of voters can really matter at a time of tight electoral margins. And other commentators have argued that the public’s perception of Trump’s criminality ultimately matters less than that of the Justice Department, which will decide on charges. The committee, as various major outlets have put it, might mostly be trying to cut through with “an audience of one”—a reliable Trump-era TV cliché that refers, in this instance, to Merrick Garland, the attorney general.

The press, of course, can’t control what Garland does or how voters react to the hearings more broadly. But we are a crucial intermediary for these hearings, and can thus control two factors that are shaping how they are received. First, we can air the hearings and prominently cover their key findings, giving news consumers the opportunity to engage again with an urgent matter of public concern: the ongoing threat to US democracy. (Not that we should need the peg of hearings to give news consumers this opportunity.) Mostly, reality-based outlets have been doing this since the hearings began, devoting a lot of coverage to the story, even if it hasn’t always been perfect; as I wrote last week, some of the more reactive coverage of the hearings has veered toward the uncritical lionization of Trumpworld witnesses who should have spoken out sooner, while also occasionally missing the forest of Trump’s well-established culpability for the trees of salacious new details and discussion of who knew what, when. (The committee’s “audience of one” might need to prove that Trump knew his coup attempt was wrong before reaching a legal determination, but news consumers shouldn’t be asked to do likewise before reaching a moral verdict about Trump’s conduct.)

Second, we have the power to frame the choices facing Garland, Congress, and America as a whole coming out of the hearings, with the future of democracy at stake. While it’s hard to generalize given the volume of hearings coverage, we could be doing a better job on this score—including by sharpening how we talk about the question of the committee’s impact on voters. In the latter coverage, one preponderant narrative—often downstream of interviews with voters, and also pushed by pundits including both Griffin and Christie—has held that a key reason why the hearings may not affect the midterms is that Americans are struggling economically right now, and are more concerned about that. We should communicate those struggles with prominence and empathy. But we should be wary of setting up a false dichotomy—the economy or January 6—here. Voters can hold multiple things in mind at once.

Most important, we shouldn’t cover the health of American democracy as one of a number of equal inputs into the campaign horse race—because democracy is the essential condition underpinning the fact we have a horse race. Voters’ economic fears and other grievances will ultimately count for a lot less if they lose the right to have their say in free and fair elections, and that could be decided in the upcoming midterms as well as in 2024. Again, we can’t make news consumers care about the January 6 hearings, however we might decide to measure their reaction. But we shouldn’t give them a pretext not to care either.

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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.