Editor’s Note: This post on the Jan 6 committee hearings by our TV critic Dominic Patten has been reclassified from a review to a commentary, and has been edited to better reflect the author’s point of view. In trying to opine that the presentation of evidence about a horrific day in American history did not rise to the occasion, the author did not mean to denigrate or belittle the loss of life and shocking violence that happened that day.
If tonight’s primetime debut of the House January 6 committee investigating the MAGA-fueled murderous attack on the U.S. Capitol last year was any indication of how the democracy-protecting politicians plan on making their pitch to the American public, they fell short.
The fact is Thursday’s hearings led by chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) and vice chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) was not effective.
The first of six televised hearings, tonight was not just another public Congressional panel in anyone’s mind. This was television intended by the Committee to reach the widest audience possible to alert them to the fragile state of American democracy, especially as we head to the midterms and the 2024 election. The lives of the police officers injured and those tragically taken that January day, and in the aftermath should have been front and center to show the very real human toll of the vile attack. Perhaps current Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department are coming soon with criminal charges after depicting former President Donald Trump using social media and a speech preceding the incident to incite right wing extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, but tonight’s curtain raiser sadly played out more as another somber stumble for America.
Intended to arouse our deeply-divided nation to the clear-and-present danger that the Democrat-dominated panel believes it has uncovered in “the actions of the insurrectionists on January 6, 2021,” as Rep. Thompson said in his stern opening remarks, the committee’s efforts tonight wasn’t as stirring as was needed. As an often split-screened Tucker Carlson pontificated against the “pure lie” of the January 6 assault, the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election 2020 win, his cable news rivals and the very notion of white supremacy on Fox NewsChannel, the committee hearings turned to a video of Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr calling “bullsh*t” on his old boss.
Maybe Barr plays well within the Beltway, but the nearly two-hour hearing simply failed to read the national room. Aware of the power of the potential public attention, the committee brought former ABC News president James Goldston on board to assist in the presentation.
Did it help?
It took nearly an hour into the cluttered hearing to show a clip of Trump son-in-law and close aide Jared Kushner’s testimony. A video of favorite offspring Ivanka Trump saying that she “accepted what he (Barr) was saying” about the lack of validity of the former President’s election fraud claims was a ripple in the fact and data packed hearing when it could have been a tsunami. Describing the “carnage,” “chaos,” and “war zone” of that day in early 2021 as the mob tried to stop the certification of the 2020 election, documentary filmmaker Nick Quested, who was close by the influential Proud Boys on January 6, and Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards offered live testimony this evening later on.
What should have been John Dean moments revealing a cancer on the Presidency and the ravages of Trump’s desires right at the top of today’s presentation was instead too little, too late and, perhaps worse, likely inconsequential.
Even with an appearance by Wyoming congresswoman Cheney and vivid previously unseen footage (see above) of the violent mob besieging Congress and pummeling police on January 6 last year, the battle for hearts and minds was pretty much lost tonight before it began.
In tones and setting that sought to be reminiscent of the scathing Watergateand Iran Contra hearings, the drama of the attempted coup d’état was primarily undermined by its own circumspect process in the media saturated realm of 2022 America. At least so far, the mixture of video segments and witness testimony unveiled no smoking gun.
Leaning into history and not the immediacy, what the hearing did mainly show in its first vital hour was a stream of talking points and underwhelming clips. With Fox News keeping to its usual line-up and merely weaving in and out of the hearings to take swipes at the “dynamic duo” of Cheney and retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), the first televised hearing by the Jan 6 committee preached to the already converted.
“Ultimately, Donald Trump, the president of the United States spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American Democracy,” Rep Thompson said on Thursday, unsurprisingly pinning the threat to the impulses and authoritarianism of the former president. “There are those in this audience who thirst for power, but have no love or respect for what makes America great,” he added in front of a giant video screen.
Live and unfiltered across the nation and the world on ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC World, CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN Fox Business, among others and online, Rep. Thompson, and VP offspring Rep. Cheney uttered strong and sometimes stirring words in their statements. However, the audio rarely matched the video for impact, and TV is a mainly a visual medium, as any rookie reporter can tell you.
Over on the Rupert Murdoch -owned Fox Business, former MTV VJ Kennedy threw from her show to Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, who anchored the live telecast of the hearing with characteristic levity saying, “It is going to be a very spicy night.” Starting at 8 PM ET/5 PM PT, vets Baier and MacCallum for the most part offered a standard-issue intro to the Capitol Hill proceedings, with a few notable exceptions. In the first 90 seconds on the air, both anchors repeatedly referred to the events of January 6 as a “riot,” rather than as an “insurrection” or “assault,” which is how many other outlets have characterized it.
“This has all been produced down to the minute,” the FNC anchors also told their Fox Business viewers. Over on Fox News proper, a lower third on the screen tonight read: “Today’s Hearing Is Political Theater.”
The Fox hosts were right in their assessment. What they failed to state is that the hearing wasn’t produced that well and may actually only harden the MAGA/GOP opposition in this year of midterm elections.
For over a year, Trump’s allies have dismissed the committee itself as a partisan exercise, even though it contains two Republicans, Cheney and Kinzinger, who have broken with their party orthodoxy.
From the GOP grassroots to its upper leadership, the party has doubled down on denying the importance of January 6, or embrace conspiracy theories over its cause. The Art of the Deal author has certainly been helped out by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who blasted the hearing earlier on Thursday.
Then there is the even more important media echo chamber filling the ears of conservatives. Along with Fox News’ top draw Carlson, fellow hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham’s shows pre-empted the major news event. Having the hearing on near silent split-screen tonight, Hannity, like Ingraham, has found himself part of the panel’s investigation. Dipping into Hannity’s correspondence with then White House Press Secretary and now Fox contributor Kayleigh McEnany on Thursday, Cheney last year read texts that both Fox personalities sent to then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows as the attack unfolded on January 6. In both instances, the communication urged the aides to try to get Trump to try to put a stop to the violence.
Fox News’ decision to forgo coverage on its main network has drawn harsh criticism from lawmakers and media critics. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor earlier on Thursday and called Fox News’ decision “cowardly” and one that should “end any debate that they are not a real news organization.”
“Fox News is a propaganda machine of the hard right and it is plain as day that they are scared of their viewers learning the truth about January 6th,” the New York Senator said, arguing that they have “isolated their viewers in an alternate reality of conspiracy theories.”
Out of primetime for the near future, the next televised January 6 committee hearing will be broadcast on June 13 at 10:00 a.m. ET, with most outlets airing the event live. Another hearing is scheduled for June 15 at 10:00 a.m. ET with three more to follow.
How many will be watching after tonight will tell us just how hardened the divisions are in this country. It will also tell us if this first of six committee hearings changed a significant number of votes going forward – because that is the next battlefield.
Tom Tapp contributed to this report.