From a prime-time setting to hype of revelations that will “blow the roof off the House,” TV hearings set to start Thursday by the select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection are generating a Hollywood-like buzz. The word “blockbuster” has been getting a workout in articles previewing the hearings.
The touchstones in popular memory when it comes to TV hearings are the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 that helped expose Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy as a reckless bully and the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Those televised hearings galvanized the nation and, in the case of Watergate at least, changed the course of history.
Usually, such history can inform predictions about similar events today. And members of the select committee are certainly trying to make Thursday’s hearing into a major TV event. Beyond committee members like Maryland’s Jamie Raskin promising fireworks, they brought in James Goldston, former president of ABC News, to help stage the production for cameras and screens.
But analysts say the media, political and cultural landscapes of American life have become so radically altered in the last decade that the McCarthy and Watergate proceedings offer little predicative value.
“Those sorts of moments, which are connected both to network television being our main transmission belt when we’re all at home basically watching it simultaneously as it happens, that is not the way media works anymore,” said Thomas Doherty, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and author of “Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture.”
“The other thing is that we’re such a divided country that the notion that we’re going to have a disinterested and impartial jury of 40 million Americans watching this to try to find out what’s going on — we don’t live in that world anymore either,” he added.
The fragmented, on-demand, siloed world in which we do live bears little resemblance to the pre-cable, pre-digital universe that consisted basically of NBC, CBS and ABC at the time of Army-McCarthy, with PBS arriving in American homes in time for Watergate. In that era, it was easy to feel as if you were part of a shared experience when watching a hit show in real time with millions of other viewers.
That sense of being part of a live, communal event is all but gone except in certain news and sports telecasts. Now, we watch when and how we want, and often in the form of video clips or social media posts rather than the full event.
Convenient, yes, but in making that choice, we put ourselves at the mercy of others who are selecting what parts of the event are deemed worthy of inclusion. Worse, the places we are most likely to go for those videos reside in the same ideological silos we do, so we are mostly getting only that which reinforces what we already believe.
Last summer, in an analysis of the first House hearing of the select committee, I wrote about the way in which this process can distort the reality and potential impact of even the most powerful testimony.
As a viewer, I had been deeply moved by the testimony of police officers who battled the mob that stormed the Capitol and tried to halt the peaceful transfer of presidential power. Their scars from that horrible day were on clear display.
But that’s not the way the hearing was framed on Fox News that night. The channel’s prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham ridiculed the law enforcement officers who shared their experiences as well as members of Congress who responded emotionally to the testimony.
On her show, Ingraham gave out mock performance awards. District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone was given “best performance in an action role” for his testimony. U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn was given the mock award for “blatant use of partisan politics when facts fail” for his. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff shared “best use of tears and dramatic pauses in a leading role” for their responses to the testimony.
Using derision as a framing device for the hearings on his show, Carlson laughed after playing a clip of Fanone saying, “I’ve been left with psychological trauma and emotional anxiety after having survived such a horrific event.”
Besides Fox, Thursday’s hearing will surely be met with a wall of right-wing and MAGA media filtering, framing and slamming -— from social media to digital platforms like the Daily Caller and wannabe Fox channels like Newsmax and One America News Network.
Fox is taking its game to another level with this week’s hearing in making the decision to not air it live Thursday night. By not showing the hearing to its audience, the channel allows its hosts to define the event, diminishing and mocking it, while holding the power to keep the most damaging parts of the proceedings from them. Host Tucker Carlson, whose show will air from 8 to 9 p.m. Thursday, has already started priming his audience for doubt by calling the hearings “wholly illegitimate.”
Citing those media forces like Fox News that did not exist in the 1950s and ’70s and members of Congress who have resisted the select committee from Day One, Danilo Yanich, a professor of public policy at the University of Delaware, said the hearings “will not have the same kind of impact” as Army-McCarthy or Watergate.
“Their fate is already sealed … From the very beginning they were made partisan, as soon as (Kevin) McCarthy (House minority leader) said no. And then you have a media source, Fox, beating away at that forever,” added Yanich, who is also the author of “Buying Reality: Political Ads, Money and Local Television News.”
While he looks forward to hearing any new information the committee has to offer and seeing how they synthesize it, Yanich believes there is not much the committee can do to reach some viewers.
“In terms information to citizens who believe the 2020 election was stolen, the hearings will not change their minds,” he said. “That’s what worries me … That’s where we are now.”