The select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection has done so many things well that even with at least one more hearing left, it’s tempting to declare the telecasts a major media triumph.
What the first six hearings have already accomplished is noteworthy: They offered millions of people a narrative of the insurrection based on facts, documentary images and eyewitness testimony given under oath rather than the alternative account Trump and his allies have promulgated through right-wing media.
At or near the top of the list of media and political accomplishments is the way the committee and its adviser, former ABC News President James Goldston, have offered a template for adapting congressional hearings and perhaps other government proceedings to the new media reality of fragmented audiences and short attention spans. They have managed to make the hearings more compelling without dumbing them down, using made-for-TV storytelling techniques to offer a highly engaging mass-audience civics lesson to a nation that no longer teaches civics in too many of its classrooms.
“Speaking strictly from the perspective of a television production, the hearings got it right: A strong narrative through-line for the ‘series’; a separate theme for each individual ‘episode’; good use of video, sound, and graphics to emphasize key points; and compelling ‘characters’ especially the young women Caroline Edwards and Cassidy Hutchinson,” said Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News and now a senior advisor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.
The quantitative results of this re-imagining of the televised hearing include audiences of more than 20 million viewers in prime time and as many as 13.2 million in daytime, with a cumulative audience of those who saw some part of the hearings at 55.3 million, according to Nielsen.
None of those numbers count the audiences for all the reruns and prime time recap programs of the hearings on platforms like MSNBC and PBS. And what makes the audience size even more impressive are all the other major news stories with which the hearings are competing. The hearings and the TV cameras have kept what happened at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 on the front burner of public consciousness as they shape a shared memory of the attempt to overthrow the results of an election.
“Most importantly, the organizers designed the hearings for the viewer, not (as is usually the case) for the politicians, who had to forego the sound of their own voices and let the witnesses and the evidence hold the stage,” Heyward added, stressing that he watched as a “citizen” rather than media analyst.
Betsy Fischer Martin, former longtime executive producer of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said of the hearings production, “There’s no doubt this has set a new standard for congressional investigations.”
Describing the production as being “in many ways more a telling than a hearing,” Fischer Martin, who is now executive director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said, “They are making a case and telling the story of that fateful day: how it came about, what happened and who was responsible.”
Instead of the kind of long-winded and self-serving remarks lawmakers disguise as questions that sometimes characterize televised Congressional hearings, she said of the January 6 hearings, “Members themselves are the storytellers and their tools are the first-hand accounts of the witnesses, key snippets of depositions, and previously unseen video of the attack on the Capitol. All these tools are deployed in a well thought out manner so that the audience can stay engaged and follow along.”
Any list of the accomplishments of the hearings must also include: helping nudge reluctant Trump insiders like former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone to testify under oath before the committee, bringing public servants like Hutchinson who still believe in civic duty before audiences of millions, and putting public pressure on the Justice Department as well as other governmental agencies to hold those who tried to halt the peaceful transfer of power accountable.
The Cheney factor
In the complicated relationship among media, politics, image and culture, the hearings also appear to have damaged Trump’s media image, if not Trump himself. The success of the hearings in doing that is perhaps best suggested by the former president’s repeated complaints about what he sees as the unfairness of the hearings (“Kangaroo Court”) and what he alleged were lies of Republican witnesses like Hutchinson (“A Total Phony!!!”).
One way to understand the relationship between the hearings and Trump’s image is the way Committee member Liz Cheney’s stature seems to have grown during the hearings while Trump’s has shrunk. As Trump was howling on his struggling Truth Social platform during and after the Hutchinson hearing, Cheney was using media to brand him as unfit to ever hold office again. She did this not only in front of the hearing cameras, but also in subsequent interviews on network and cable TV and in speeches like the one she gave on June 29 at the Ronald Reagan Museum — sacred ground for some Republicans — in which she got a standing ovation. Her increasing media exposure is allowing the committee’s fact-based and testified-under-oath account of the insurrection to be circulated among a wider audience. And her manner of presenting that version of the event enhances its credibility, analysts say.
Tom Bettag, former executive producer of “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” and ABC News “Nightline,” said one of the primary reasons for the success of the hearings is the “brilliant work” of Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the Republican members of the committee.
As Bettag explained it, one of the ways to stand out and be successful on TV is “to be doing what other people are not doing.” Cheney, he said, is doing that and then some.
“What she stands out for, what’s different, is one, the tone that she has. In a world where people always talk too long, she stands out for her brevity. Two, she carries herself with a certain dignity in a world where people do not talk much about dignity. And three, she treats witnesses with respect. Between brevity, dignity, and respect, she’s doing what we haven’t see in a very long time, and it works,” said Bettag who now teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Given the advanced state of media fragmentation, political polarization and the power of a right-wing media machine working overtime to discredit the hearings, no one is predicting the work of the January 6th committee will ultimately have an impact on the level of the Watergate hearings in 1973, which resulted in the resignation of a sitting president.
But the committee is laying down an account of the insurrection that is attracting tens of millions of viewers this summer. The work its members have already done will serve not only as a template for how to stage future congressional hearings, but also a repository of eye-witness testimony and fact for future historians who want to get at the truth of that horrible day.