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Jan. 6 hearings use TV tricks to great effect even as critics call them show biz

The House Select Committee has used TV news techniques and documentary evidence to argue that then President Donald Trump knowingly pressured public officials to commit illegal acts. In this case, the panel displayed a transcript of his call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as it played excerpts of the audio.
Kevin Dietsch
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Getty Images
The House Select Committee has used TV news techniques and documentary evidence to argue that then President Donald Trump knowingly pressured public officials to commit illegal acts. In this case, the panel displayed a transcript of his call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as it played excerpts of the audio.

Skeptics call the Congressional hearings on the January 6th siege of the U.S. Capitol show business. On Fox News, critics call them "show trials."

Yet the House select committee investigating the attack is achieving something rare on Capitol Hill: Hearings that are surprisingly tangible, understandable, and substantive instead of the typical Congressional ping-pong match of clashes, arguments and even more arguments about whose turn it is to argue.

The committee is making a dual argument. It is laying out the case that rioters who attacked the Capitol were intentional insurrectionists. It is also arguing that then President Donald Trump embarked on a pressure campaign that he knew was illegal and could end in violence as he tried to deny President Biden his win in the 2020 elections.

The headlines and stories that have emerged are clear-cut. "Trump knew plan was illegal," The Washington Post told readers atop its paper after one hearing. "Jan. 6 committee leaders say Trump broke the law by trying to pressure Pence," said NPR. "Trump, Told It Was Illegal, Still Pressured Pence to Overturn His Loss," The New York Times reported.

Techniques taken from TV news to tell a story grounded in facts

To achieve that, the hearings relied on subtle television news techniques and choices, rather than sensationalism. And they did so in two ways.

The first involves how the material is shaped.

With each day's hearing, the Jan. 6 committee has committed to a single story with a narrative arc, consisting of main characters and dramatic conflicts. Each panel assembled fits in with the larger theme of the day, building to a larger point. And the investigative panel has drawn upon a raft of authenticating sources — audio, depositions, emails, memos, social media posts, texts, video, and more.

Take Tuesday's hearings. Viewers heard of phone calls Trump and his advisers made with an "ask" — inappropriate and likely illegal demands. (We heard recordings of Trump on one of those calls Tuesday.)

'Do you know how it feels to have the President of the United States target you?'

And the public heard of the real-life harm done to people 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 widowed daughter-in-law's home was broken into. Presidential arm-twisting was followed by in-person menace, believed to be from Trump supporters.

And a mother-and-daughter team of election workers in Georgia, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, revealed how their lives were upended.

"Do you know how it feels to have the President of the United States target you?" Freeman asked in her videotaped testimony. She said she was advised by the FBI to move out of her home for two months.

No 5-minute opening statements, so no grandstanding

These presentations relied on a second television news technique, which is to maintain a clear story told at a brisk pace and focused on the desired subjects. The committee hired former ABC News President James Goldston. Associates tell NPR he sees the job as a civic contribution rather than a partisan task.

As a result, lawmakers on the committee dispensed with the usual five-minute opening statements that are often an opportunity for grandstanding for hometown coverage or viral moments. They did not engage in round-robin questioning, but designated a specific panel member for each session.

Instead it's short excerpts of video testimony, individual texts and tweets

In this way, the committee sidesteps confusion of whom to listen to. Excerpts of taped testimony or public speeches are rarely longer than a minute or two — often far shorter. Former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr — a Trump appointee who says he would still vote for Trump for president if he were the Republican nominee — proves a favorite source of quotations for the committee. Viewers have heard him dismiss Trump's talk of election fraud in a variety of colorful phrases.

When there are text exchanges or Twitter threads, each statement is unveiled on the screen individually, with pauses for the implications to seep in. To vary the voices, different committee investigators narrate what happened in specific elements, introducing video and audio clips. The camera lingers on footage or images of the person being talked about — not the person talking, whether Trump, his chief of staff, his legal advisers, or those acting in his name among the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

Focus on substance of topic rather than prestige of speaker

The viewers absorb the importance of what is being talked about, not the prestige of who is speaking.

This represents an extraordinary demonstration of discipline for a congressional committee, with a minimum of showboating, yielding hearings put together like a Ted Koppel-vintage episode of Nightline or Dateline NBC or a taut investigative podcast.

There's even a brief video teaser for what's ahead in the next session. The sole witness who delivered live testimony haltingly — retired U.S. Appeals Court Judge J. Michael Luttig — acknowledged later he was picking words with excruciating care for posterity.

Republican calculation not to participate means they have no influence on shaping the narrative

Part of this was enabled by a political calculation — probably a miscalculation — by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who decided to pull all Republicans he proposed for the committee. Speaker Nancy Pelosi knocked two Republican lawmakers from joining the committee, saying they might themselves have questions to answer about their conduct. So McCarthy decided to boycott it in an effort to gut the committee's credibility.

As a consequence, McCarthy has no influence on shaping the hearings.

Pelosi and Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, pulled in Republicans Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who is serving as his vice chair, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. Both have assailed Trump's moves to undermine democracy.

"You have nobody to give the opposing point of view," Trump complained to Punchbowl News on Wednesday.

A damning investigation presented as compelling TV

Writ large, the committee hearings are a damning work of investigation presented as compelling TV. With one key exception, no assertions presented as fact by the committee have been credibly knocked down.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, denied he preemptively sought a pardon from then-President Trump in January 2021. The committee had alleged he did. It will presumably need to show some documentation or vindicate him. (That's leaving aside Rudy Giuliani's contention he was not intoxicated at a key moment when others say he was.)

Different news outlets have offered their own assessments. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank catalogued the repeated times Fox News journalists and pundits said the hearings wouldn't "move the needle" in public opinion about what happened on January 6th. The former president's apologists on Fox, Newsmax and elsewhere have discounted it as old news, fake news, no news.

Heartfelt testimony from regular Americans is forcing people to pay attention

More than 20 million people watched the first night of prime-time hearings; fewer have watched the daytime sessions since. (Fox News didn't cover that first hearing live, preferring to protect its star programs and to send viewers looking for the hearing to its less-watched sibling Fox Business. For that matter, NBC dropped out of some daytime coverage in favor of the U.S. Open golf tournament.)

Some of Trump's defenders have taken those numbers to mean the hearings are a flop. Pro-Trump voices are attempting to discount the words even as — even before — they come out of the mouths of witnesses.

Yet those numbers best the audience for Trump's first impeachment. And the nation is hearing heartfelt testimony by people in difficult jobs trying as best they can to live up to their oaths. In many cases, they are Republicans. By and large, their accounts have forced the nation's news outlets to pay attention, distributing their message to a far 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 to the Jan. 6 attack.

What we can learn from the ancient Greeks about prophecy and hyperbole

The ancient Greeks left us with two big stories about how unheeded warnings are treated. Cassandra the prophet was invariably prescient. And she was equally invariably ignored. The people she sought to warn were time and again overtaken by violence and doom. There was a lot of that going around. It was the Trojan Wars, after all.

The other story is a fable, courtesy, we are told, of a storyteller named Aesop. There's a boy with ominous concerns of a wolf and hoax cries for help. The boy repeatedly makes the equivalent of classical Greek prank 911 calls. The wolf ultimately devours the town's flock of sheep as everyone tunes out the warnings.

The legacy of the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol attack will hinge on whether viewers and the voting public treat it as prophetic or hyperbolic. Thanks to careful adaptation of TV techniques, the committee has proved, so far, to have a strong and disturbing story to tell.

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