As television programming goes, expectations were widespread 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 if former President Donald Trump’s allies suggest there aren’t enough actors.
The hearings are pausing for a break until next month, leaving Americans much to digest.
As seen during Trump’s impeachments, modern congressional hearings tend to produce more heat than light. That was part of why the Jan. 6 committee faced low expectations, along with the sense — 18 months after the insurrection, an event that played out on live television — that there may be little new to learn.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to participate gave the committee a gift, the chance to craft hearings as a unicorn of sorts in today’s political age.
The hearings are concise, no more than 2 ½ hours, each day with a specific theme. It goes like this: First, viewers are told at the outset what they’re going to hear. Then they hear it. Then they are told at the end what they just heard. Usually there’s a preview 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 understandable with short, simple bursts of information reflects lessons learned from the impeachment, said Norm Eisen, a former lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee who worked on those hearings and is now 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 led 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 clips from taped testimony like a journalist would include quotes in a story. Questioning of live witnesses doesn’t wander.
Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Republican Vice Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., question witnesses alongside one other member who is in charge of each hearing.
The result is a rare sight in Congress: lawmakers staying silent.
“I’m surprised by the discipline involved in doing this effectively, because politicians love to grandstand,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a specialist in political communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “And if people were grandstanding, it wouldn’t work.”
As a result, sound bites that emerge from each hearing and are repeated online and in news reports — the way many Americans learn about these sessions — consistently reflect the narrative the committee is trying to advance, Jamieson said.
Each day’s hearing fits the overall theme — that the plot to nullify the 2020 election was multi-faceted, with the events of Jan. 6, 2021, only one part, and that many of the people surrounding Trump didn’t believe his claims of election fraud.
Witness testimony gains power because it mostly comes from Republicans, Trump’s former aides and allies, Jamieson said. It’s one thing to have Schiff declare Trump’s rigged election claims were bull, quite another to have it come from the former president’s attorney general, with an Ivanka Trump endorsement.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who defied Trump’s pleas not to certify the election, received the type of praise he’d never expect from a committee led by Democrats.
The most pointed political messages come from Cheney, who has spoken directly to Republican Trump supporters even as she knows many are furious with her.
“It can be difficult to accept that President Trump abused your trust, that he deceived you,” she said at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing. “Many will invent excuses to ignore that fact. But that is a fact. I wish it weren’t true. But it is.”
The hearings also command the attention of journalists by consistently offering something new or unexamined, such as Thursday’s revelation of congressmen who pleaded for presidential pardons, or the extent of Trump’s fundraising off his false claims of fraud.
“Things really couldn’t have gone much better from the committee’s point of view,” said veteran television producer Chris Whipple, author of a forthcoming book on the first year of the Biden administration. “The production has been fine, but it really has been a masterpiece of casting.”
Citing the creator of “The West Wing,” Whipple added: “Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have dreamed up a character like Rusty Bowers,” the Republican Arizona House speaker who resisted Trump’s request to appoint false electors.
The committee has also created villains like John Eastman, architect of the effort to nullify the election, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, diminishing Giuliani by reports that he was intoxicated on election night.
The testimony of Georgia elections worker Wandrea “Shaye” Moss put a face on common Americans who were affected by false accusations of voter fraud.
Even an anchor on the frequently Trump-friendly Fox News Channel, Neil Cavuto, said after the hearing where Moss was featured that “this just seems to make Donald Trump look awful.”
Trump seems to have sensed it. He criticized McCarthy, who pulled all of his Republican appointees off the Jan. 6 committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of them. At the very least, having Trump allies on the panel would have hurt the committee’s ability to control its message, Jamieson said.
Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog Media Research Center said he objects to the media portraying the commission’s work as bipartisan when the only two Republicans — Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger — are longtime Trump critics.
“The fact that this is not a balanced commission is really a shame,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University professor and Fox News analyst. “Having someone there to ask probing questions, rather than scripted questions, I think would have added greater 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.”