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NEW YORK (AP) — As television programming rolled around, expectations were widespread that the Jan. 6 committee hearings would essentially be reruns. Instead, they were much more.
The five sessions 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 that there are not enough actors.
Hearings are halting for a break until next month, leaving Americans with plenty to digest.
As seen with Trump’s impeachments, modern congressional hearings tend to produce more heat than light. This is partly why the January 6 committee faced low expectations, as well as the feeling – 18 months after the uprising, an event that unfolded on live television – that it was not there may not be much new to learn.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to participate gave the committee a gift, the chance to design hearings as a kind of unicorn in today’s political age.
The auditions are concise, no more than 2h30, each day with a specific theme. It goes like this: first, viewers are told from the start what they are going to hear. Then they hear it. Then they are told at the end what they have just heard. Usually there’s a preview of the sequel — a tip that likely reflects advice from James Goldston, a former ABC News producer hired as a consultant.
Keeping presentations understandable with short and simple bursts of information reflects lessons learned from impeachment, said Norm Eisen, a former House Judiciary Committee lawyer who worked on those hearings and is now at the Brookings Institution.
“It’s just focused on witnesses and evidence,” said Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, a panel member who also led Trump’s second impeachment hearings. “We know we have a valuable opportunity to convey this information to the American people, and we don’t want to waste a minute of it.”
The committee uses excerpts from recorded testimony like a reporter would include quotes in a story. The questioning of living witnesses does not go astray.
The committee chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Republican vice-chair, Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., question witnesses alongside another member responsible for each hearing.
The result is a rare sight in Congress: lawmakers remain silent.
“I’m surprised at the discipline it takes to do this effectively, because politicians love to show off,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications specialist and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “And if people were grandstanding, it wouldn’t work.”
As a result, the sound bites that emerge from each hearing and are repeated online and in news reports — the way many Americans learn from these sessions — consistently reflect the narrative the committee is trying to advance, Jamieson said.
Each day’s hearing fits the overall theme – that the conspiracy to void the 2020 election was multi-faceted, with the events of January 6, 2021, only one part, and that many people surrounding Trump did not believe his claims. electoral fraud.
The testimony is gaining strength because it comes mostly from Republicans, former Trump aides and allies, Jamieson said. It’s one thing for Schiff to say Trump’s election-rigged claims were bullshit, it’s another to have him come in from the former president’s attorney general, with Ivanka Trump’s endorsement.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who defied calls from Trump not to certify the election, received the kind of praise he would never have expected from a Democratic-led committee.
The sharpest political messages come from Cheney, who has spoken directly to Republican Trump supporters, even though she knows many are furious with her.
“It can be hard to accept that President Trump abused your trust, that he deceived you,” she said after Thursday’s hearing. “Many will invent excuses to ignore this fact. But it is a fact. I wish that weren’t true. But he is.”
Hearings also grab journalists’ attention by constantly offering something new or unexamined, like Thursday’s revelation of members of Congress who have argued for presidential pardons, or the extent of Trump’s fundraising on his false allegations of fraud.
“Things really couldn’t have gone much better from a committee perspective,” said veteran television producer Chris Whipple, author of a forthcoming book on the first year of the Biden administration. “The production was good, but it really is a masterpiece of casting.”
Quoting the creator of ‘The West Wing,’ Whipple added, “Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have imagined a character like Rusty Bowers,” the Republican speaker of the Arizona House who resisted Trump’s demand to appoint false voters.
The committee also created villains like John Eastman, architect of the effort to nullify the election, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, diminishing Giuliani with reports that he was drunk on election night.
The testimony of Georgian election worker Wandrea “Shaye” Moss has put a face to ordinary Americans who have been hit by bogus accusations of voter fraud.
Even a frequently supportive Fox News anchor, Neil Cavuto, said after the hearing where Moss was introduced that “it just seems to make Donald Trump look awful.”
Trump seems to have felt it. He criticized McCarthy, who pulled all of his Republican representatives from the Jan. 6 committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two. 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 took issue with the media portraying the commission’s work as bipartisan when the only two Republicans – Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger – are longtime critics of Trump.
“The fact that it’s not a balanced commission is really too bad,” 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 that audience.”
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
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