The Media Today

The January 6 hearing and the value of spectacle

June 10, 2022
An image of a mock gallows on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6th is shown as committee members from left to right, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., look on, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds its first public hearing to reveal the findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Wednesday, the day before the House committee investigating January 6 was scheduled to host its first televised hearing, Dan Friedman and Pema Levy, of Mother Jones, offered the press a version of a warning that I’ve often had occasion to issue in this newsletter. Scolding Margaret Brennan, of CBS, for asking a committee member whether the hearing’s success would hinge on its ability to “deliver a bombshell” about the insurrection that day, Friedman and Levy noted that we all saw then-president Trump attempt a coup and incite a riot as it happened, and that we don’t need new information to understand how bad it was. “Brennan was channeling a dangerous narrative that has become conventional wisdom, not just for Beltway media types but also among many Democrats: the need for more,” they wrote. “Waiting for new bombshells risks overlooking what we already know. And that helps Trump’s defenders move the goal posts.”

Friedman and Levy weren’t alone: in the days leading up to the hearing, other media watchers expressed fears that reporters and pundits would judge it on novelty, optics, or otherwise trivial grounds, and pointed to examples that they felt showed this happening already: a New York Times headline casting the hearing as a chance for Democrats to “recast” their “midterm message”; a Times op-ed declaring the hearing an “anticlimax” before it had even begun; a Politico newsletter “pregaming” the hearing and picking its “sleeper player” and “possible breakout.” The day of the hearing “is going to be maddening,” Danna Young, a communications professor at the University of Delaware, predicted. “Journalists will be tempted to cover the Jan 6 hearings like they cover everything else: as a strategic game between two political sides.” Such worries were justified by ample precedent. In July 2019, denizens of the political press set ludicrous expectations for a congressional hearing featuring Robert Mueller, then deemed that the session was bad TV, with NBC’s Chuck Todd ruling that “on optics, this was a disaster.” Later the same year, top outlets variously described the first day of televised hearings in Trump’s (first) impeachment as lacking “pizzazz,” and “consequential, but dull.”

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Meanwhile, the January 6 committee worked ahead of time to add pizzazz, or something like it, to its TV debut. As far back as March, the Washington Post reported that members were thinking about how to produce “blockbuster televised hearings that the public actually tunes into,” and were trying to hire high-profile journalists to turn its final report into a “narrative thriller”; last week, Axios broke the news that the committee had hired James Goldston, a former documentary producer and president of ABC News, to “hone a mountain of explosive material into a captivating multimedia presentation” ahead of the hearing, which he reportedly planned to make “raw enough” that “skeptical journalists will find the material fresh.” The networks, for their part, outlined plans to air the hearing—which was scheduled for prime time—live, with top broadcast networks pledging to preempt normal programming to that end.

Well, most of the networks: Fox News said that it would stick with its regular nightly opinion lineup and cover the hearing only “as news warrants”; the network said that its sister channel Fox Business would carry the hearing live—though, as many observers pointed out, the latter has a tiny audience compared to the former. Critics howled that Fox was, once again, failing in its civic duty to its viewers; Laura Ingraham responded that Fox was merely planning to “cater to our audience,” an admission that struck various observers as saying the quiet part out loud. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said that Fox was scared of its viewers learning the devastating truth about January 6. Top congressional Republicans, meanwhile, tightly clutched their pearls, slamming the committee’s hiring of Goldston and writing off the hearing as “a partisan, made for TV, media spectacle.” They would know. 

Last night, at 8pm Eastern, the preemptive noise ceased and the hearing began. Bennie Thompson, the committee’s Democratic chair, immediately started to lay out Trump’s culpability for the events of January 6, calling the attack on the Capitol “the culmination of an attempted coup”; then, Liz Cheney, the Republican vice-chair, picked up the thread, introducing videos of pretaped testimony that showed people close to Trump—his former attorney general William Barr; his daughter Ivanka—calling his claims of a stolen election “bullshit,” to borrow Barr’s word. There followed a harrowing montage packaging never-before-seen footage of the insurrection, followed by a break, followed by live testimony from two witnesses: Nick Quested, a British documentarian who was embedded with the extremist group the Proud Boys around the time of the insurrection, and Caroline Edwards, a police officer whom the mob knocked violently to the floor and who later slipped in her colleagues’ blood. The hearing concluded with another video montage, this time showing insurrectionists testifying that they had answered Trump’s call. The whole thing was over in a crisp two hours.

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While all this was going on, of course, the noise continued on Fox. “It tells you a lot about the priorities of our ruling class that the rest of us are getting yet another lecture about January 6 tonight, from our moral inferiors, no less,” Tucker Carlson said as he came on air at 8, calling the insurrection “a forgettably minor outbreak” of mob violence, and adding, “They are lying and we are not going to help them do it.” At 9, he was relieved by Sean Hannity, who declared that the hearing had “overpromised” and “underdelivered” even though it was still going on. At one point in the hearing, Cheney read out a text from January 7 in which Hannity privately urged “no more stolen election talk” from Trump. On air last night, Hannity did not mention the text.

Back in the real world, the hearing was getting rave reviews from many real journalists. Wesley Lowery called it “extremely compelling, from a storytelling perspective”; Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman, who was in the Capitol on January 6, said that the footage presented at the hearing was “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” In a headline, the Times described the committee’s case as “vivid,” with Peter Baker adding, in an analysis piece, that “a more damning indictment” of a president has “surely never” been presented in the entirety of US history. The Post’s Amber Phillips wrote that the committee had laid out a mountain of evidence “expertly.” The Hollywood Reporter called the hearing “must-see TV.” On TV itself, CNN’s Jake Tapper hailed the hearing’s “many big bombshell scoops,” while his colleague Chris Wallace, formerly of Fox, called it “a very powerful, well-produced presentation” (after saying, ahead of time, that he was “skeptical” of the committee “overselling” its “hype”). On PBS, Judy Woodruff described the footage in the hearing as “jaw dropping.” On NBC, Chuck Todd compared the hearing favorably with the Mueller investigation and Trump’s two impeachments. This probe, he said, “truly has the receipts.”

Not that everyone was completely sold on the revolutionary nature of the presentation. Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, questioned whether Goldston’s production assistance had really been necessary, arguing that, beyond the montages, the hearing presented important information in “a fairly standard format.” Deadline’s Dominic Patten went much further, arguing that the hearing “unveiled no smoking gun” and was “NPR when it should have been UFC,” adding that the committee “may want to give Mark Burnett a shout.” (The latter two lines have since been removed, with editors adding a note to clarify that Patten “did not mean to denigrate or belittle” the events of January 6. His piece, apparently, has been edited to “better reflect” his point of view.)

Ahead of the first televised hearings in Trump’s 2019 impeachment, I wrote that pundits weren’t totally wrong to focus on optics given that persuading the public to care was the point at this staging post in a much broader political process; the problem, I wrote, was that many pundits have a sensationalized and shallow definition of what makes for good TV.  I would disagree with Patten’s conclusions about last night’s hearing on almost exactly the same terms. The committee, I would argue, couldn’t deviate too far from the way congressional hearings typically look and sound; if it had done so, the hearing would not recognizably have been a hearing, and could easily have sacrificed its own gravitas and slipped into genreless confusion. 

Within these obligatory boundaries, I found the hearing short, sharp, and innovative. Most of the committee’s members were not given the opportunity to grandstand, making it easier for viewers to focus their attention on the evidence and witnesses. Edwards’s testimony was wrenching in an understated way; if a single moment of the hearing stood out to me, it was watching her calm reaction, across a split screen, as she was shown footage of the mob slamming her to the floor. The committee was smart, too, to segue straight from its montage of unseen riot footage to a break, allowing the networks to cut in with commentary. If I had to compare the hearing to a work of journalism, I’d not pick public radio but a comprehensive magazine article: there were newsy scoops in there, but its much greater value came in laying out truths that we already knew with a searing depth, emotional resonance, and fresh perspective.

It’s welcome, after all the atrocious takes of Trump hearings past, that so many media observers, at least that I saw, found this hearing to be compelling on something like those terms, and didn’t write it off as a dud because the committee didn’t show footage of Trump screaming I WANT TO DO A COUP while fireworks popped and “The Final Countdown” blared in the background. Not that there’s much comfort to be found in top journalists dodging the direst predictions of their impending inanity. The correct judgment that this was a slick TV spectacle doesn’t excuse those who wrongly found past spectacles of obvious wrongdoing to be lacking in “receipts.” On a more fundamental level, it’s depressing that we’ve ever needed slick TV spectacles to convince people of obvious wrongdoing. And last night, the people who most needed to be convinced were those watching Tucker.

Below, more on the hearing and January 6:

  • How others covered it: Yesterday morning, an anchor on Newsmax gleefully said on air that that right-wing network would not be broadcasting the hearing live, either—only for the network to then put out a statement saying that it would be. “This is an important news event and the reason Newsmax will carry it live, but it will also be important for us to make sure the public is aware of any and all partisan bias that results from the hearing,” the channel said. (Its coverage, in the end, was predictably dismissive.) Two other networks not to air the hearing in full were Telemundo and Univision, though both carried it online. CNN’s Brian Stelter has a full roundup of which network did what.
  • Shorthanded: Writing for The Atlantic ahead of the hearing, Grant Tudor made the case that “January 6” is “dangerous shorthand” for the much broader right-wing attack on democracy, and drew a parallel with Watergate, which itself was much more than just a burglary. “The consequences of incomplete storytelling have reverberated,” Tudor argues. “As the political scientist Paul Musgrave observes, The Unfinished Nation—among the country’s most circulated high-school history textbooks—features just two and a half pages about Watergate, ‘without mentioning any specific crime other than the break-in.’ Today, the suffix -gate is attached to all manner of scandals, including those of merely passing significance, hardly reserved for severe crises of democracy.”
  • A serious thing: Check My Ads, a nonprofit that aims to defund online disinformation by pressuring ad exchanges to drop its purveyors, is now taking on the website and YouTube channel of Fox News, NPR’s Bobby Allyn reports. “Advertisers have said over and over again, ‘We don’t want to fund violence,’ so it’s shocking that Fox News is still receiving these ad dollars,” Claire Atkin, the group’s cofounder, said, arguing that Fox “encouraged and supported” the insurrection. (Fox dismissed the effort as censorship.)
  • A funny thing: On Tuesday—while his wife, the former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, hosted a book party at Cafe Milano in DC—the outspoken anti-Trump lawyer George Conway appeared on both CNN and MSNBC to condemn Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Politico’s DC playbook said it was “reliably informed that George booked the appearances as ‘counterprogramming’ to Kellyanne’s event,” with Cafe Milano owning “two large TV screens that are usually tuned to cable news.”

Other notable stories:

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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.