The Media Today

The January 6 committee revolutionizes democratic storytelling

July 22, 2022
A video of President Donald Trump recording a statement on Jan. 7, 2021, is played, as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Yesterday, as part of a broader package in which New York Times columnists reflected on their past bad takes, David Brooks wrote that he has been wrong, going back decades, about capitalism. Fair enough. But he needn’t have reached so far into the past to correct the record; June 8 of this year would have sufficed. On that date, Brooks confidently concluded that the House committee investigating the insurrection had “already blown it,” even though the panel had yet to hold a single televised presentation of its findings. Brooks argued that the committee should have looked forward in its work, more than back, identifying “the weaknesses in our democratic system and society” and proposing fixes rather than seeking to “simply regurgitate” the events of January 6. And he branded the committee’s aims in taking the latter path—electoral gain for Democrats, but also to demonstrate exactly what happened in the White House on and around January 6 in a way that would cut through with the public—as “pathetic.”

As the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted recently, Brooks wasn’t the first or only mainstream pundit to make a bad prediction about the committee’s effectiveness—many others did so a year ago this week after Congressional Republicans stymied the formation of an independent commission to investigate January 6, then tried to appoint bad-faith wreckers to the House committee that was formed in lieu of the commission; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked those appointments, prompting Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to declare that Republicans would boycott the panel altogether. This, various journalists concluded, was a bad move on Pelosi’s part: the committee’s work, they said, would be perceived as purely partisan and thus lack any credibility. (The fact that two GOP representatives, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, independently joined the committee, bucking McCarthy’s wishes, apparently didn’t count as “bipartisanship,” with certain pundits seeming to conclude that the panel’s legitimacy rested on its inclusion of members bent on delegitimizing it.) Anyone hoping that the committee might help us understand what happened on January 6, CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote, “should give up on those hopes now.”

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These days, of course, the overwhelming consensus among mainstream-media types, including Chris Cillizza, is that the committee has done a spectacular job of helping us understand what happened on January 6. (Correcting bad takes is obviously in the air at the moment, though Cillizza maintains that he was not “totally wrong in my broad point” that the hearings might not “change all that many minds.”) The committee has laid out a thorough, compelling account of Trump’s attempted coup and the insurrection across eight televised hearings, the last of which aired last night in prime time. Well, the last for now: the committee is still at work, and leading members have raised the prospect of impromptu future hearings pegged to specific new evidence (in the mold of the explosive session with Cassidy Hutchinson last month) or the committee’s publication of reports summarizing its findings.

Still, with the committee’s scheduled run now over, it’s worth reflecting on how it succeeded, not only substantively but also at what amounted, effectively, to an exercise in media production. In terms of format, any future hearings will be unlikely to deviate too much from what we’ve seen so far—indeed, the format has remained disciplined and consistent since the committee aired its first televised hearing, also in prime time, last month. As I wrote then, it’s a format that has innovated without being totally revolutionary, which I mean in a positive sense; each individual hearing has dispensed with the worst aspects of the genre—partisan mudslinging, preposterous grandstanding, a bloated running time—while retaining others, remaining recognizable as a Congressional hearing and thus retaining a basic aesthetic of institutional gravitas. (Not everyone will welcome this, but it makes sense for the committee given that its work is aimed at preserving institutions.) And the hearings arguably have been revolutionary when taken as a whole—radically reshaping the idea of what a long-running Congressional probe can look like.

I likened the first prime-time hearing to a long-form magazine article, in the sense that it synthesized things that were, for the most part, already public knowledge in a way that added fresh perspective and emotional depth. Since then, it’s been more common for media critics to compare the hearings to a prestige TV miniseries. Last night, that metaphor kicked into overdrive, with talk of a “finale” hearing and a possible “second-season pickup” (a reference to the prospect of future hearings). The structure of the final hearing, in fairness, invited such comparisons. It even featured a final-episode blooper reel of Trump struggling through a video message to supporters after January 6—though of course, what he said was scary, not funny.

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If the miniseries comparison is fair, though, I think it is most insightful in assessing the hearings as just that—a series—rather than at the level of individual “episodes.” Each hearing has offered enough context for the floating viewer to be able to understand it, but the committee’s greatest success has been holding attention and constructing a narrative arc across its separate sessions; more than that, it has ramped up suspense between sessions, with members touring TV-news shows to trail upcoming installments (often while remaining coy about concrete details) and selectively disclosing their plans ahead of time to invite media speculation about witnesses and evidence, as they did most effectively ahead of the Hutchinson hearing. (The committee also had more substantive reasons for veiling Hutchinson’s identity ahead of time, but the effect was dramatic either way.) The panel also made compelling use of recurring characters, not least its own members, leaning especially hard into Cheney’s principled-GOP-apostate shtick.

As I (and others) have written before, none of this is a bad thing, even though talking about deadly serious events through the prism of television techniques instinctively sounds trivial; as James Poniewozik, the Times’s great TV critic, put it after the committee’s first hearing, “storytelling is a tool for engagement, not just distraction.” Ultimately, that’s what the committee has done these past few weeks: tell a story. What matters above all, in real-life storytelling, is that the story is true—and this one demonstrably has been. As I see it, the committee has laid down a blueprint for how Congress might rethink future hearings and investigations to better engage the public on all manner of questions of public concern. It has also shown that TV can still be a useful vehicle for that type of engagement. “Many analysts have downplayed its importance with the rise of the Internet and social media,” CNN’s David Zurawik noted last night. “But these hearings have shown the enduring political and cultural power of the medium.” (Not that this is an either/or question: the committee has proven adept at viral clip-making, too.)

There are important caveats here, of course. While there are encouraging signs that the hearings have, in the end, cut through with a broader-than-anticipated swath of the public, cut-through is hard to measure definitively, and those most in need of convincing haven’t reliably been watching. (Whenever Fox News has aired one of the hearings live, its viewership has tanked.) Everything that I described as being compelling about the hearings’ structure, meanwhile, could be used for evil by future committees less committed to the truth. It’s already easy to imagine a Republican-only panel turning similar narrative techniques on Hunter Biden—possibly as early as next year, with the GOP poised to retake the House (or, as Politico put it yesterday, “take over the studio and overhaul the programming lineup”). But TV, ultimately, is a medium; at least to some extent, it remains up to the press whether—and how—we choose to relay the message to viewers. If a future committee injures the truth, it’ll be our job to say so and decline to air it without due context, not to scold Nancy Pelosi for failing to ensure that it’s bipartisan.

The pundits who scolded the January 6 committee for its partisan makeup were clearly wrong, both at the time—again, it contains two Republicans—and in hindsight: it would never have been able to lay out the truth so compellingly with pro-Trump Republicans lodging procedural objections at every turn. It was perhaps harsher of me to characterize Brooks’s preemptive dismissal of the committee as his wrongest take. His column actually made some good points, not least that we didn’t need the committee to painstakingly reconstruct every minute detail of January 6 to know the shocking, very public truth of that day. (I’ve made this point repeatedly.)

Still, Brooks was wrong, in various important ways. Minutiae matter, at least for the historical record—it’s unthinkable to me that Congress wouldn’t want to conduct a forensic accounting of a terrorist attack against itself—and it was cynical to assume that the committee wouldn’t change any minds. He was also wrong to imply a dichotomy between looking back at January 6 and looking forward to how to fix American democracy, as the committee’s very forward-facing closing arguments last night made clear. Sure, the committee didn’t speak so much to the “broad social conditions” that underpin the decline of US democracy, as Brooks would have liked it to, but that wasn’t realistically its remit. Perhaps we might push for another committee, modeled on this one, to explore those forces. There, America has a lot of record to correct.

Below, more on the January 6 hearings:

  • What did the Fox say this time: While Fox News broadcast all of the January 6 committee’s daytime hearings, it did not air its first prime-time hearing, raising a question, headed into last night, as to how it would handle the second prime-time hearing. In the end, the answer was much the same as the first: Fox Business showed the hearing live, but Fox’s main news channel stuck with its scheduled opinion programming. (This, CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, was somewhat ironic since the committee made heavy use of Fox footage last night.) Last night’s edition of Tucker Carlson’s show mostly didn’t even talk about the ongoing hearing; later, Sean Hannity referenced it repeatedly, but only to condemn it. One of his guests, Rep. Jim Banks, called the committee a “dud.” That’s the same Jim Banks various pundits thought should have been on the committee.
  • Drip, drip: Going into the hearings, “conventional wisdom” held “that no single revelation was going to change Republican minds about Donald Trump,” Politico’s David Siders wrote earlier this week, but “what happened instead, a slow drip of negative coverage, may be just as damaging to the former president.” After weeks of damaging sessions, “an emerging consensus is forming in Republican Party circles—including in Trump’s orbit—that a significant portion of the rank-and-file may be tiring of the non-stop series of revelations about Trump,” Siders wrote. “The fatigue is evident in public polling and in focus groups that suggest growing Republican openness to an alternative presidential nominee.” (Trump’s approval among Republicans, it should be noted, remains high.)
  • Very secret: Earlier this week, the Secret Service informed the committee that it couldn’t comply with a subpoena for text messages that agents exchanged on and around January 6 because they had been deleted. Officials stressed that nothing untoward had occurred, blaming a routine technical issue, but committee members expressed skepticism. Now the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security is leading a criminal investigation into the missing texts and has told the Secret Service to hold off on probing the matter itself. CNN’s Whitney Wild and Jeremy Herb have more.
  • The take’s progress: The Times’s package of opinion writers reckoning with their past wrongness is worth spending some time with. In addition to Brooks’s mea culpa on capitalism, Paul Krugman was wrong about inflation, Michelle Goldberg was wrong about Al Franken, Zeynep Tufekci was wrong about the power of protest, Bret Stephens was wrong about Trump voters, Thomas Friedman was wrong about Chinese censorship, Farhad Manjoo was wrong about Facebook, and Gail Collins was wrong about Mitt Romney and his dog. You can find the whole package here.

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.