Jan. 6 Hearings — Must-See TV

July 22, 2022

Another end to another workweek this Friday early evening and the start to a couple of days to reboot.

A post on reflection about the TV audience for those Jan. 6 hearings — the last in the original series last night, supposedly more hearings most likely set for September as more evidence and testimony fill the agenda — and the two primetime episodes (of eight) performed like good, Must-See TV with way-decent ratings: ‘Nearly 17.7 million television viewers tuned in to Thursday’s Jan. 6 hearing. The number, encompassing 10 broadcast and cable networks, represents a slight drop from the first prime-time hearing, which drew an audience of 20 million.

The House committee appears to understand the mechanics of putting on a good show:

As always, an interesting day-after analysis from media columnist Margaret Sullivan at The Washington Post this morning:

By their nature, congressional hearings are boring. Politicians speechify. The pace is slow and halting. If anyone manages to say anything important, it’s drowned in a sea of bloviation.

But the eight hearings held by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol have been riveting to watch — and even more remarkably, they have captured the daily news cycle again and again, not only finding substantial TV and streaming audiences as they aired but also consistently landing at the top of broadcast and cable news reports and of newspaper front pages. This was far from a sure thing, given how much news coverage the Capitol riot already received over the past year and a half.

Thursday night’s hearing — the season finale, as it’s been dubbed — was no exception.

“It’s surprising — certainly not what I would have predicted — the way these hearings have broken through and captured the news cycle again and again,” said Tom Bettag, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland.

Bettag was a longtime executive producer of the CBS “Evening News” and ABC’s “Nightline” whom I’ve found to be a savvy media observer, so I was eager to talk to him about how these hearings have managed to command the news cycle. Here are a few theories.

Newsworthiness. Each hearing has produced at least one legitimate nugget of actual news, and sometimes more than one. Bettag theorizes that this has made it easier for the broadcast networks to overcome their concerns of looking like a cheering squad for anti-Trump forces.
“They ask themselves, ‘Was there anything new?’ and if they can answer yes, it gives them a reason to overcome the worry about partisanship,” he told me.
For example, the first prime-time hearing, which aired in early June, provided a video clip of former attorney general William P. Barr’s candidly expressed testimony about Trump’s claims that the election was stolen: “I told the president it was bulls—.” Vivid stuff that also suggested Donald Trump knew he lost but lied to the American public about it anyway.
In a subsequent hearing, White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson made headlines with her shocking account of how the president tangled angrily with his own Secret Service detail as he tried to insist on going to the Capitol with the mob, apparently to try to overturn the election.

Pace. Although somber and unflashy in tone, the hearings have been characterized by something almost unheard of in this kind of congressional forum: briskness. They move expeditiously from brief opening statements to video or live testimony. There have been no extemporaneous speeches, no tedious delays, no “look at me” displays.
A compelling central character. Liz Cheney, with her steely resolve and understated intensity, is hard to look away from, especially when you know the backstory of the committee’s vice chairwoman: her conservative views and voting record, how the Wyoming Republican has been drummed out of her leadership role, and the very real possibility that her political career will end as a result of what she’s doing.
“She is breathtakingly different and is the person driving this whole operation in a totally unexpected way,” Bettag said. “She has become the embodiment of the notion that the sworn allegiance to the Constitution comes before politics.”
As Cheney recently told Peter Baker of the New York Times, “I believe this is the most important thing I’ve ever done professionally, and maybe the most important thing I ever do.”

“Dumb luck.” That’s how Bettag characterizes the simple fact that the other major news stories of recent months — the heartbreaking spate of deadly mass shootings in Highland Park, Ill., Uvalde, Tex., Buffalo and elsewhere — have not occurred on the same dates as the hearings themselves. (Two were in May, before the hearings began; the Highland Park tragedy was on the Fourth of July.)
As a result, with very few exceptions, three broadcast networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — have led their half-hour evening newscasts with what happened at each of the eight hearings and often given them unusually big chunks of time.

Maybe it will have an impact on the midterms and on down the ballot-box road. One can hope.

Weekend call, yet here we are once again…

(Illustration out front: Pablo Picasso’s ‘Les Deux Saltimbanques: l’Arlequin et Sa Compagne,’ found here.)

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