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Skeptics cite Congressional hearings on the show business siege of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. On Fox News, critics call them “show trials.”
Yet the House select committee investigating the attack achieves something rare on Capitol Hill: hearings that are surprisingly tangible, understandable, and substantive rather than the typical Congressional ping-pong contest of clashes, arguments, and even more arguments about whose turn it is to to argue.
The committee makes a double argument. It explains that the rioters who attacked the Capitol were deliberate insurgents. It is also alleged that President Donald Trump then launched a campaign of pressure that he knew was illegal and could end in violence when he tried to deny President Biden his victory in the 2020 election.
The headlines and stories that have emerged are clear. Trump knew the plan was illegal The Washington Post told readers atop his paper after one hearing. “January 6 commissioners say Trump broke the law by trying to pressure Pence,” NPR said. Trump, who said it was illegal, still pressured Pence to undo his loss. The New York Times reported.
Techniques from TV news to tell a fact-based story
To achieve that, the hearings relied on subtle television news techniques and choices, rather than sensationalism. And they did that in two ways.
The first concerns how the material is formed.
With each day’s hearing, the Jan. 6 committee committed to one story with a narrative arc, made up of main characters and dramatic conflict. Each assembled panel fits into the greater theme of the day and builds to a greater point. And the research panel drew on a host of authenticating sources — audio, statements, emails, memos, social media posts, texts, video, and more.
Take Tuesday’s hearings. Viewers learned of three phone calls Trump made with a “question” — an inappropriate and likely illegal question. (We heard recordings of two of those conversations during the hearings.)
“Do you know what it feels like to have the President of the United States target you?”
The public learned of the real damage done to people who were unwittingly caught up in the former president’s efforts.
A House Speaker in Arizona — a Trump-supporting Republican — who received threats. A secretary of state in Georgia — a Trump-supporting Republican — whose wife received death threats and whose widow’s daughter-in-law’s house was broken into. Presidential arm twist was followed by personal threat, presumably from Trump supporters.
And a mother-and-daughter team of Georgia election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, revealed how their lives were turned upside down.
“Do you know what it feels like to have the President of the United States target you?” Freeman asked in her videotaped testimony. She said she had been advised by the FBI to leave her home for two months.
No 5 minute opening statements, so no grandstanding
These presentations were based on a second television news technique, namely maintaining a clear story that is told at a brisk pace and focused on the desired topics. The committee hired former ABC News president James Goldston. Employees tell NPR that he sees the job as a social contribution rather than a partisan task.
As a result, lawmakers on the committee waived the usual five-minute opening statements, which are often an opportunity for bragging rights for hometown coverage or viral moments. They did not ask around, but designated a specific panelist for each session.
Instead, they are short snippets of video testimonials, individual texts, and tweets
In this way, the committee avoids confusion about who to listen to. Fragments of recorded testimony or public speeches are rarely longer than a minute or two – often much shorter. Former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr — a Trump appointee who says he would still vote for Trump if he were the Republican nominee — turns out to be a favorite source of citations for the committee. Viewers have heard him dismiss Trump’s talk about voter fraud in a variety of colorful phrases.
When there are text exchanges or Twitter threads, each statement is revealed individually on the screen, with pauses to seep in the implications. To vary the voices, different committee investigators recount what happened in specific elements, introducing video and audio clips. The camera lingers on footage or footage of the person being talked about — not the person talking, be it Trump, his chief of staff, his legal advisers, or those acting on his behalf among the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.
Focus on the subject matter rather than the speaker’s prestige
The viewers absorb the importance of what is being discussed, not the prestige of who is speaking.
This represents an extraordinary demonstration of discipline before a congressional committee, with a minimum of showboating, yielding hearings curated like a Ted Koppel vintage episode of nightline or Dateline NBC or a tight research podcast.
There’s even a short video teaser for what’s in store for the next session. The only witness to give faltering live testimony—retired U.S. Court of Appeals Judge J. Michael Luttig— later acknowledged he chose words with unbearable care for posterity.
Republican calculation to opt out means they have no influence on shaping the story
Some of this was made possible by a political calculation—probably a miscalculation—by House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who decided to pull out all the Republicans he proposed to the committee. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has prevented two Republican lawmakers from joining the committee because they may have questions of their own about their conduct. So McCarthy decided to boycott it in an effort to undermine the commission’s credibility.
As a result, McCarthy has no influence on the format of the hearings.
Pelosi and chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, brought in Republicans Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who is his vice chairman, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. Both have attacked Trump’s moves to undermine democracy.
“You have no one to give the opposing view,” Trump complained to Punchbowl News on Wednesday.
A damning investigation presented as immersive TV
In short, the commission’s hearings are a damning piece of investigative work presented as immersive TV. With one important exception, no claims presented as facts by the commission have been credibly refuted.
US Representative Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, denied that he had asked for a preemptive pardon from then-President Trump in January 2021. The commission claimed that he had. It will probably have to show some documentation or prove him right. (That’s not to mention Rudy Giuliani’s claim that he wasn’t drunk at a key moment when others say he was.)
Several news outlets have offered their own ratings. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank cataloged the repeated times Fox News journalists and pundits said the hearings wouldn’t “move the needle” in public opinion about what happened on Jan. 6. The former president’s apologies on Fox, Newsmax and elsewhere have discounted it as old news, fake news, no news.
Heartfelt Testimonials from Ordinary Americans Force People to Pay Attention
More than 20 million people watched the first night of prime-time hearings; fewer have watched the day sessions since then. (Fox News didn’t do that first hearing live, preferring instead to protect its star programs and send viewers looking for the hearing to its less-watched sibling Fox Business. By the way, NBC dropped a daily coverage in favor of the US Open golf tournament.)
Some Trump defenders have adopted those numbers to signal that the hearings are a flop. Pro-Trump voices try to ignore the words, even if they come from the mouths of witnesses — even before that.
Still, those numbers are the best for the public for Trump’s first impeachment. And the nation is hearing heartfelt testimonies from those in difficult jobs who try their best to keep their oaths. In many cases they are Republicans. Overall, their accounts have forced the country’s news outlets to pay attention and spread their message to a much wider audience on the air and online.
The vast majority of Americans, 70% according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, say it’s important for Congress to hold these hearings so the public can learn what led up to the Jan. 6 attack.
What we can learn from the ancient Greeks about prophecy and hyperbole
The ancient Greeks left us two great stories about how undetected warnings are handled. Kassandra the prophet was always prescient. And she was invariably ignored anyway. The people she tried to warn were overtaken by violence and disaster time and again. There were a lot of those going around. After all, it was the Trojan Wars.
The other story is a fable, we are told, of a narrator named Aesop. There is a boy with ominous worries about a wolf and hoax cries for help. The boy repeatedly makes the equivalent of classic Greek prank 911 calls. The wolf eventually devours the town’s flock of sheep while everyone ignores the warnings.
The legacy of the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol attack depends on whether viewers and the voting public treat it as prophetic or hyperbolic. Thanks to careful adaptation of TV techniques, the committee has so far proven that it can tell a strong and disturbing story.