Gary Abernathy: Will the Media Ever Rebel Against the Prepackaged Capitol Hill Show?

From a story on abernathyroad.substack.com by Gary Abernathy headlined “Will the media ever rebel against the prepackaged show?”:

Tuesday saw the drop of Season One, Episode Six of “The January Sixth Committee starring Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney.” If you missed it live, it’s available on several streaming services.

Will there come a time when the media rebels against being spoon-fed testimony and images by the Jan. 6 committee, and refuses to regurgitate the production in headlines that could have been written by committee staffers? So far, the answer is a clear “no.”

Once again, after Tuesday’s hastily-arranged “hearing” — necessitated, we were told, because of new, urgent information — most of the media ran with the witness testimony, which was couched in phrases like “something to the effect of” and included a lot of things other people told her. It didn’t matter. It all was immediately reported as fact.

The star witness was Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows, who was chief of staff to former President Donald Trump. Hutchinson had been featured in previous testimony via video tape, and for some reason she was brought in live and in person on Tuesday to spend much of her time sitting and watching her previous, taped testimony. It was bizarre. The committee continues to present taped testimony in heavily-edited, awkwardly clipped fashion.

Hutchinson had new, salacious revelations about previously known events, making us wonder why it just now came up, since she’s obviously testified before behind closed doors. Much of what she shared were things she had not witnessed but had merely been told about. She was told that Trump threw a temper tantrum in the presidential limo when the driver refused to take him to the Capitol where the riot was unfolding. She was told he was told about some protest attendees being armed but wanting them allowed into the area where he was speaking because he wanted to fill up empty spots. She saw some ketchup streaking down the wall where Trump had apparently thrown a plate of, what, french fries? I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but politicians throwing temper tantrums like 5-year-olds is not a new development, from city council members to presidents of the United States.

Some things Hutchinson heard and saw firsthand. But in almost all cases, her memory isn’t great. She remembers being told “something to the effect” of this or that. In numerous cases, she used that phrase, or something similar. “He said something to the effect of…” A defense attorney would have a field day on cross-examination.

Of course, there is no defense attorney. There is no challenge to the pre-packaged presentation. It’s amazing — embarrassing, actually —to watch the other committee members sit so obediently silent while chair Bennie Thompson and co-chair Liz Cheney read from the teleprompter. But we must not waver from the script.

I’m not criticizing Cassidy Hutchinson. She’s doing what the committee asked her to do. If the committee is willing to have hearsay and personal impressions entered into the record — things like Hutchinson sharing how she thinks someone looked, i.e., depressed, upset, worried — it’s not her fault for being prodded to answer questions about things she doesn’t actually know firsthand. But despite media efforts to make Watergate comparisons, this isn’t Watergate, and Cassy Hutchinson isn’t John Dean.

What’s sad are journalists regurgitating this stuff in big, bombastic headlines without questioning in the least bit whether, a, it’s true and, b, it really means anything important. The New York Times headlines right after the hearing are shown above in a screenshot from its website. In those places where it says, “Aide Says” or “Aide Testifies,” keep in mind that what the aide said or testified in those cases were things she was told, not things she witnessed. With all due respect to the New York Times — and I do respect it most of the time even when it lets me down because, hey, it’s the New York Times — it’s wrong to highlight those things in headlines when they are things the witness said others told her, not things she witnessed for herself.

She testified that she was told that Trump “lunged for the wheel,” but the headline implies she saw it. She testified that she was told that Trump knew about the “potential for violence” because people were armed with guns. She indeed witnessed Trump asking security to be loosened, but the headline implies she knew that he knew of the potential for violence, when in fact she was told that he was told about people being armed. She didn’t witness that conversation.

I’m still not sure we learned anything meaningful. It has long been known that Trump wanted to go to the Capitol and was told he couldn’t. The details of how vigorously he may have attempted to get his way are just that — details, which will be magnified because someone elaborated with details she was told about.

To be fair, here’s Trump’s response, as reported by Newsweek from his social media feed:

“I hardly know who this person, Cassidy Hutchinson, is, other than I heard very negative things about her (a total phony and “leaker”), and when she requested to go with certain others of the team to Florida after my having served a full term in office, I personally turned her request down. Why did she want to go with us if she felt we were so terrible? I understand that she was very upset and angry that I didn’t want her to go, or be a member of the team. She is bad news… Her Fake story that I tried to grab the steering wheel of the White House Limousine in order to steer it to the Capitol Building is ‘sick’ and fraudulent, very much like the Unselect Committee itself—Wouldn’t even have been possible to do such a ridiculous thing… I didn’t want or request that we make room for people with guns to watch my speech. Who would ever want that? Not me!”

Again, Jan. 6, 2021 was a terrible day in American history, and Donald Trump is responsible for it happening. No one should support him for president going forward, not particularly because of Jan. 6, 2021, but because of his refusal to acknowledge Biden’s legitimacy as president. But that doesn’t mean that everything being said or done against Trump is fair, or should be done, or that he doesn’t deserve a defense. Like everyone else, he does. And it sure doesn’t mean that respected media outlets should throw their principles to the wind, even if it’s in the service of bringing down Donald Trump.

Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer based in the Cincinnati, Ohio, region.

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