The Media Today

The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee

July 26, 2021

In late May, over the Memorial Day weekend, the top story on NBC’s Meet the Press was a recent vote by Republican senators to kill the prospect of an independent, fully bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. (Six Republicans backed the commission, but their votes weren’t enough to overcome their colleagues’ filibuster.) At the top of the show, Chuck Todd, the host, correctly noted that it was Republicans who blocked the commission. Then, however, he called the vote “a stress test for our democracy” that “our democracy failed, and failed big time.” He said that top Republicans had plainly torpedoed the commission for reasons of electoral self-interest, then said that “this Congress” had voted it down. He interviewed Barbara Comstock, a former Republican Congresswoman who supported the commission, about the reasons for her party’s opposition, then asked Jason Crow, a Democratic Congressman, whether his party’s leadership in the House would voluntarily retain the commission’s proposed bipartisan structure in any replacement investigation it may constitute, in order to ensure its “credibility.” Todd also asked, “​​On this Memorial Day weekend, if Congress can’t even agree on an independent January 6 commission, what can it agree on?”

Todd’s framing reflected the variety of motifs found in other media coverage of the January 6 investigation, and of Washington politics more broadly: there was some moral and factual clarity, but it was muddied, both by impersonal language that obscured lines of accountability, and the twin implications that bipartisanship is desirable, and that Democrats bear responsibility for upholding it—even in the face of explicit Republican obstructionism. As the story has developed—with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi establishing a select committee to investigate January 6 in lieu of a commission—these motifs have persisted; last week, they crescendoed, as Pelosi blocked two Republican Congressmen—Jim Banks and Jim Jordan—from appointment to the panel, leading Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, to pull all five of his picks. 

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Banks had been overtly hostile to the prospect of the committee and Jordan may be a material witness to Donald Trump’s complicity in the insurrection; both men voted to reverse Trump’s defeat in key states, abetting the Big Lie that incited the insurrection in the first place. Pelosi’s decision not to seat them thus looked like a move to shore up the credibility of the committee’s investigation against inevitable bad-faith attacks from within. And yet a number of journalists and commentators reached very different conclusions. Rachael Bade, of Politico, said that Pelosi had given a “gift” to McCarthy: “He wanted this panel to look partisan and political. Now it’s definitely going to look partisan and political.” Politico’s DC Playbook team, of which Bade is a member, wrote that, while it had called out Republican “cowardice” in rejecting the idea of a commission, Pelosi’s decision “will make the investigation even easier to dismiss for people who aren’t die-hard members of Team Blue,” arming the GOP with a “legitimate grievance.” Chris Cillizza, of CNN, told anyone still harboring hopes that the committee might deepen public understanding of January 6 to “give up on those hopes now,” because Pelosi had just “doomed” them. (Confusingly, Cillizza then went on TV and pinned most of the blame on McConnell.) The Hill wrote that Pelosi had helped Banks burnish his “brand.” And so on.

This genre of coverage—and Playbook’s analysis, in particular—attracted some intense criticism online, with numerous media-watchers characterizing it as the latest iteration of a familiar journalistic problem: bothsidesism. The New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote, in an article headlined “Both Sides Journalism Will Never Die,” that many political journalists treated Pelosi’s decision as “just another sigh-inducing instance of partisanship in Washington”—a position Shephard paraphrased with the question: “Why can’t both parties just stop messing around and get things done? If only Nancy Pelosi would stop playing politics and allow people who tried to overturn a legitimate presidential election to serve on a committee investigating a violent attempt to overturn a legitimate presidential election!” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte agreed: everyone knows that the GOP wants to derail the January 6 investigation, she wrote, “and yet, because the slow decline of our democracy is like a horror movie where the scantily clad young woman is ignoring audience pleas not to go down that dark hallway, the mainstream media is framing this as a ‘both sides’ problem.” Speaking on Pod Save America, NBC’s Mehdi Hasan said that the insurrection led to hope that journalists might abandon the both-sides approach—and yet, six months on, “the ‘legitimate grievance’ is the pro-insurrection party complaining that they don’t get to be on the insurrection investigation.”

This is, indeed, bothsidesism as we’ve come to understand the term, insofar as it bent over backward to find Democratic culpability in a problem that Republicans created. But this understanding arguably reflects a slippage from a clear-cut understanding of the term that, to my mind, was once more prevalent in gripes about political coverage, especially early on in the Trump era: namely, the idea of false equivalence, or treating two things that aren’t the same as if they are. Much of the coverage of Pelosi’s decision fit this classic frame—casting it as part of a “partisan brawl,” or juxtaposing soundbites from Pelosi and McCarthy without adding much context. The most objectionable coverage, however, committed far graver sins; arguably, the worst of it was so bothsidesy that it approached onesideism, scolding Democrats while letting Republicans off the hook. This is itself a much broader problem than mere false equivalence, reflecting—as Brian Beutler, of Crooked Media, and others have put it—the commonplace journalistic assumption that “Republican bad faith… is just a feature of the landscape,” whereas a given Democrat is “an actor with agency, and subject to scrutiny.” This problem, as Hasan noted, has an analytical cousin: in the eyes of many pundits, a given political development is often framed as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans.

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In addition to its cravenness, much political analysis of Pelosi’s decision, taken on its own terms, got lost down a series of empirical and logical dead ends. Numerous outlets claimed, for example, that Pelosi set a precedent, in terms of committee-appointment practices, that Republicans will likely wield against Democrats the next time they have control of the House. But Republicans have shown time and again that they are more than happy to themselves blitz precedent in service of a political objective, be it a Supreme Court justice or Trump back in the White House. The idea they need the cover of Democrats doing it first is absurd. 

Much of the conversation around the “credibility” of the January 6 investigation has been absurd, too—yoking the definition of the term to actors who have explicitly stated their intent to delegitimize the investigation. Similar is true of the claims that Pelosi blew up the bipartisan nature of the committee, which often elided the fact that Liz Cheney, a prominent Republican, will still serve on it. Such an analysis implies that, to satisfy the demands of bipartisanship, Republicans aren’t Republican enough if they take seriously the thing the committee was created to take seriously. This, clearly, is circular, and self-defeating.

Last week, Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Washington Post, suggested that those covering the investigation should ask themselves a question: “What sort of inquiry into January 6 would Republicans declare to be a legitimate one?” If the answer is blatantly antithetical to the purposes of any actual inquiry, Sargent reasoned, then it must follow that Republicans, not Democrats, are to blame for the absence of bipartisanship. I’d propose a second question that should guide coverage—one that doesn’t just look back at the events of January 6, but forward to the prospect that Republicans will try to subvert an election again, perhaps with more success. Journalists should ask themselves whether, in such an eventuality, they will be able to look back on their present coverage of Republican democracy subversion and defend it; if not, they should correct course now, substituting clarity for complacency before it’s too late. This act of imagination doesn’t require any certainty of prediction. It merely requires a recognition of plausibility, and the acknowledgement that chattering about the electoral consequences of this move by Pelosi, or that move by McCarthy, is pointless if elections aren’t played on a level field.

Below, more on the January 6 investigation:

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.