Margaret Sullivan: Four Reasons the January 6th Hearings Have Conquered the News Cycle

From a Washington Post column by Margaret Sullivan headlined “Four reasons the Jan. 6 hearings have conquered the news cycle”:

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.

The New York Times led its website Friday morning with this headline: “Jan. 6 Panel Presents Evidence of Trump’s Refusal to Stop the Capitol Riot.” The Washington Post took its hearings headline across five of the six possible front-page columns in print — “Trump ignored many pleas to act” — with two related stories nearby. CNN spent nearly as much time recapping and analyzing afterward as the hearing itself had consumed. Nearly every other major media outlet — with the obvious exception of Fox News — gave the hearing an equivalent treatment.

“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.

The Jan. 6 hearing was horrifying. It also gave me hope.

1. 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.

2. 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.

“They cut that out completely,” Bettag said. “It’s shocking that they have had that degree of discipline.” Rather than crediting former ABC News president James Goldston, who served as a consultant to the committee, Bettag thinks it’s more likely that the efficiency resulted from excellent work by congressional staff.

The liveliness kept the general public tuned in — and that public interest, in turn, probably affected the amount of news coverage that editors and media executives decided it warranted.

3. 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.”

The clarity and moral force behind that sentiment comes across in her demeanor, and whatever you think of her politics, it’s admirable.

There are plenty of other interesting characters — Trump lawyer Pat Cipollone, with his matter-of-fact tone and devastating answers; or the young Capitol police officer, Caroline Edwards, who stirred emotions as she recounted the chaotic scene at the Capitol and “slipping in people’s blood.”

But it’s Cheney, undoubtedly, who is the heart and soul of the hearings. And news coverage — never averse to drama and personality — has reacted accordingly.

4. “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.

Meanwhile, the intense interest by news consumers in the Russian invasion of Ukraine had waned somewhat. And so, other than a heat wave and a new coronavirus variant on the rise, there wasn’t all that much to compete with the hearings as a news story.

The news gods thus smiled upon the hearings and cleared a path for them to dominate. And that they certainly have done.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times’s public editor and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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