As television shows go, expectations were rife that the Jan. 6 committee hearings would essentially be reruns. Instead, they have been much more.
The five sessions have revealed a storyteller’s eye, with focus, clarity, an understanding of how news is digested in modern media, and strong character development — even as former President Donald Trump’s allies suggest there aren’t enough actors.
The hearings are adjourned until next month, leaving Americans with a lot to digest.
As seen during Trump’s impeachments, modern congressional hearings produce more heat than light. That was one of the reasons why the January 6 commission was faced with low expectations, along with a feeling – 18 months after the uprising, an event that was broadcast live on television – that there may be little new to learn.
Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to participate gave the committee a gift, the chance to host hearings like a unicorn of sorts in the current political age.
The hearings are brief, maximum 2 ½ hours, per day with a specific theme. It goes like this: first the viewers are told in advance what they are going to hear. Then they hear it. Then at the end they get to hear what they just heard. Usually there’s a taste of what’s next — a trick that likely reflects the advice of James Goldston, a former ABC News producer hired as a consultant.
Keeping the presentations comprehensible with short, simple bursts of information reflects the lessons learned from the charge, said Norm Eisen, a former House Judiciary Committee attorney who worked on those hearings and now works at the Brookings Institution.
“It’s just focused on the witnesses and the evidence,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a member of the panel who also chaired the second Trump impeachment hearings. “We know we have a precious opportunity to get this information to the American people, and we don’t want to waste a minute of it.”
The committee uses fragments of recorded testimonials as a journalist would include quotations in a story. Questioning living witnesses does not stray.
Commission President Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Republican Vice President Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., interrogate witnesses along with another member in charge of each hearing.
The result is a rare sight in Congress: lawmakers who are silent.
“I’m surprised at the discipline it takes to do this effectively, because politicians like to sit in the stands,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications specialist and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “And if people were great, it wouldn’t work.”
As a result, sound bites that emerge from each hearing and are repeated online and in news stories — as many Americans learn about these sessions — consistently reflect the story the committee is trying to put forward, Jamieson said.
Each day’s hearing fits the overall theme – that the plot to nullify the 2020 election was multifaceted, with the events of January 6, 2021, only one part, and that many of those around Trump are allegations of voter fraud.
Witness statements are gaining traction as they come primarily from Republicans, Trump’s former aides and allies, Jamieson said. It’s one thing to have Schiff declare that Trump’s falsified election claims were nonsense, quite another to have it come from the former president’s attorney general, with an endorsement from Ivanka Trump.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who defied Trump’s pleas not to certify the election, received the kind of praise he would never expect from a Democrat-led committee.
The most targeted political messages come from Cheney, who has spoken directly with Republican Trump supporters, even though she knows many are outraged at her.
“It can be difficult to accept that President Trump has violated your trust, that he has defrauded you,” she said at the end of Thursday’s hearing. “Many will make excuses to ignore that fact. But that’s a fact. I wish it wasn’t true. But it is.”
The hearings also draw the attention of journalists by consistently offering something new or unexamined, such as Thursday’s revelation about congressmen pleading for presidential pardons, or the magnitude of Trump’s fundraising for his false claims of fraud.
“From the commission’s point of view, things really couldn’t have gone much better,” said veteran television producer Chris Whipple, author of a forthcoming book on the first year of the Biden administration. “The production was fine, but it really was a masterpiece of casting.”
Citing the creator of “The West Wing,” Whipple added, “Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have imagined a character like Rusty Bowers,” the Arizona Republican House speaker who resisted Trump’s request to fake voters. appoint.
The commission has also created villains such as John Eastman, architect of the election-defeat attempt, and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who downsized Giuliani over reports he was drunk on election night.
The testimony of Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, an election official in Georgia, put a face on ordinary Americans who were hit by false accusations of voter fraud.
Even a host on the often Trump-friendly Fox News Channel, Neil Cavuto, said after Moss’s hearing that “this just seems to make Donald Trump look awful.”
Trump seems to have felt it. He criticized McCarthy, who removed all of his Republican appointees from the Jan. 6 committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two. At the very least, having Trump’s allies on the panel would have damaged the committee’s ability to monitor its message, Jamieson said.
Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog Media Research Center said he objects to the media portraying the committee’s work as bipartisan, while the only two Republicans — Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger – being old Trump critics.
“The fact that this isn’t a balanced commission is really unfortunate,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University and an analyst at Fox News. “If someone was there to ask probing questions, rather than written questions, I think I would have added more authority and power to this hearing.”
Given the evidence presented, Whipple wondered how effective additional Republicans would have been.
“I’m not sure it would have helped them one iota,” he said, “and it might have hurt them.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.
For full coverage of the January 6 hearings, visit https://www.apnews.com/capitol-siege