Media Weigh Democracy Against Ratings on Jan. 6 Hearings

by | Jun 17, 2022 | News

On January 6, 2020, a mob of supporters to then-President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol during the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency. Violence ensued throughout the Capitol and the following months saw a continuous effort from Donald Trump and his political allies to cheat Democracy by clinging to office.

After 1 1/2 years of investigations by the Justice Department, journalists, and the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, the committee organized a series of public hearings this past week to share its findings on what likely amounted to a criminal conspiracy.

Prior to the first hearing last Thursday, Ryan Kelly, Republican gubernatorial candidate for Michigan, was arrested by the FBI because of his involvement in the insurrection. According to James Risen of The Intercept, Kelly’s arrest demonstrated how the Republican Party has been ensnared by Trumpist forces behind the insurrection, “and which today seem unashamed and determined to sabotage democracy again to try to usher in a right-wing, authoritarian government as soon as possible.”

The first hearing reminded what Risen called “an attention-deficient nation” of the violence committed in the worst domestic attack on the U.S. government since the Civil War, which overcame police guarding the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency and forced members of Congress to flee the House and Senate chambers.

As the committee began its hearings, Sunday show host Margaret Brennan of CBS asked Representative Adam Schiff of California, “If you don’t deliver a bombshell on Thursday, don’t you run the risk of losing the public’s attention here?” Mother Jones’ Dan Friedman and Pema Levy said this question encapsulates the political peril the committee faces:

“Brennan was channeling a dangerous narrative that has become conventional wisdom, not just for Beltway media types but also among many Democrats: the need for more. A violent coup attempt carried out in plain sight apparently isn’t enough. Donald Trump incited a riot. Several people died.”

Trump plotted to send fake electors and for the military to seize voting machines, demanded that electors “find 11,780 votes,” and pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to prevent Biden’s certification. Schiff reminded Brennan that there are already bombshells, and Americans now need to understand “how close we came to losing our democracy.”

Friedman and Levy pointed out that no further probe is needed to show that Trump rallied, in public and on social media, a violent mob. Waiting for further bombshells helps Trump’s defenders move the goal posts.

Jon Allsop for Columbia Journalism Review noted that other media watchers expressed similar fears about reporters downplaying the severity of the proceeding by judging its novelty or casting it as a partisan game.

Allsop gave several examples in the runup to the first hearing, including a New York Times headline observing a chance for Democrats to change their “midterm message”; a Times op-ed calling the hearing an “anticlimax” before it began; and a Politico Newsletter rattling off sports metaphors such as “pregaming,” “sleeper player,” and “possible breakout.” Mainstream journalists have reduced groundbreaking hearings to political bickering or dull affairs before, as with the first day of televised hearings for Trump’s first impeachment.

The committee hired former documentary producer and president of ABC News James Goldston to create “a captivating multimedia presentation” to get people to tune in to the hearings. Many TV networks, Fox News excluded, aired them.

Fox’s Tucker Carlson said of the proceedings, “They are lying and we are not going to help them do it.” Sean Hannity followed, saying that the (at the time ongoing) hearing had “underdelivered.” Hannity did not remark on Liz Cheney’s reading of a text from him to Trump on January 7 urging “no more stolen election talk.”

The first hearing was “short, sharp, and innovative,” according to Allsop. He said it’s welcome that media observers didn’t write this off as a dud, “Not that there’s much comfort to be found in top journalists dodging the direst predictions of their impending inanity.”

In an opinion piece on The Hill, Joe Ferullo likened the proceedings to a 60 Minutes story that shed some of the archaic elements of a formal hearing. It rather looked like a fast-moving segment of television, displaying “strong emotions, urgent soundbites, and a clear portrayal of good guys vs. bad guys.” Journalists at the New York Times, PBS, and elsewhere agreed it was an effective format.

Allsop said,

“On a more fundamental level, it’s depressing that we’ve ever needed slick TV spectacles to convince people of obvious wrongdoing. And last night, the people who most needed to be convinced were those watching Tucker.”

CNN’s Stephen Collinson asked of Trump after the hearings, “How can this force of nature, who has defied accountability all his life by creating bigger and bigger infringements of accepted behavior and the rule of law, ever be made to pay a price for his actions?” Collinson observed that a challenge facing the House committee has been to “find a fresh way to impress the horror and implications of the insurrection” to voters.

Though for Trump’s attempted coup, “no one could have seen this all coming” Collinson said, “the warning signs were flashing as soon as Trump burst onto the political scene.” He listed compelling evidence from the hearings, then concluded by characterizing the committee as a failure. He quoted CNN political commenter S.E. Cupp, who said of Trump’s 2015 campaign announcement that “There is no way to describe what happened.” “Seven years on,” said Collinson, “and despite the committee’s efforts, there still isn’t.”

The New York Times’s Alan Feuer explained the shaky plan of law professor John Eastman, who claimed that Pence had the legal power to alter the election’s outcome or postpone the certification of Trump’s defeat. Eastman’s idea began a plan to pressure Pence into overturning the election, though he warned Trump of its dubiousness.

Feuer and the House committee also noted that at no point did Pence, or most others in Trump’s circle, believe the vice president had the power to decide the election. Still, Trump’s pressure campaign against Pence helped trigger January 6’s violence, as demonstrated during the hearing by footage of rioters calling to “hang Mike Pence!” and a notable surge in crowds in and outside the Capitol after Trump’s tweet saying “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what needed to be done.”

NBC News’s headline on Trump’s tweet attributes the bipartisan committee’s findings to a “key Democrat.”

If prosecutors could prove that both Trump and Eastman knew in advance that the scheme to pressure Pence would violate the law, it could be an important piece of evidence to establish criminal intent. The Times remarked that the committee dismantled Trump and Eastman’s legal argument, showing it had no precedent and went against the fundamental tenets of democracy. Further, they both knew the plan was illegitimate, and proceeded anyway.


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