AP

A harrowing American moment, repackaged for prime time

Jun 9, 2022, 9:10 PM | Updated: Jun 25, 2022, 8:54 pm
An image of Ivanka Trump is displayed on a screen as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds its first public hearing to reveal the findings of a year-long investigation, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (Jabin Botsford//The Washington Post via AP, Pool)
(Jabin Botsford//The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

NEW YORK (AP) — Promised: New footage. New testimony. New and damning revelations designed to eliminate all doubt. Hired to package it all for the airwaves: A former network news president. The time slot: 8 p.m. on the East Coast, once a plum spot for the most significant television programming in the land.

Presented in prime time and carefully calibrated for a TV-viewing audience (itself increasingly an anachronism), the debut of the Jan. 6 hearings was, in essence, a summer rerun. Designed as a riveting legislative docudrama about an event that most of the country saw live 18 months ago, it tried mightily to break new narrative ground in a nation of short attention spans and endless distractions.

But did it? Can it? Even with gripping, violent video and the integrity of American democracy potentially at stake, can a shiny, weeks-long production that prosecutes with yesterday’s news — news that has been watched, processed and argued over ad nauseam — punch through the static and make a difference today?

“The idea of a televised investigative proceeding maybe feels a little obsolete when so many people already had so much access to what happened,” said Rebecca Adelman, professor and chair of media and communication studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “This is a population that by all evidence is fatigued by a lot of things. I’m not sure how much sustained attention anyone has left at this point.”

That’s why the hearings needed one key thing most legislative committees lack: a professional TV executive — someone who could arrange and curate violent amateur and surveillance video, 3D motion graphics, eyewitness testimony and depositions into a storyline built to echo.

Enter James Goldston, the former president of ABC News. The language Axios used in reporting his involvement was instructive. Goldston, it said, would approach Thursday night’s hearing “as if it were a blockbuster investigative special” with “the makings of a national event.”

Those are not often words you hear about a committee hearing. They’re the words of showmanship — something politics has always had, actual governance less so.

During the media-savvy (for its era) Kennedy administration, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin famously coined the term “pseudo-event” — an event conducted expressly for the purpose of being noticed. While that isn’t the case with the Jan. 6 hearings — actual governance is taking place — the buildup and presentation makes it easy to conclude otherwise.

Could it be that this is the only way to grab the public’s attention? After all, since Jan. 6, 2021, much of America has moved on to fresh worries.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, seized on some of those in a series of tweets attacking the committee. “When’s the prime-time hearing,” he asked in six tweets, followed by “on $5 per gallon gas,” “on baby formula shortages,” “on record crime in Democrat-run cities,” “on the left’s 2020 riots,” “on record high grocery prices,” “on Democrats attacking parental rights at school board meetings” and “on threats against Supreme Court Justices and their families.”

By many appearances, the country is operating as it was before the insurrection. Joe Biden was inaugurated as scheduled 14 days after the insurrection. No evidence of election fraud surfaced. The pandemic ebbed. People are talking about guns and gas prices and Russia — not its interference in U.S. elections, but its invasion of Ukraine.

All of this, of course, belies the fact that the Capitol riot undermined the sanctity and security of the democratic process. After more than 200 years in which the peaceful transfer of power was taken for granted in America, it suddenly and very violently wasn’t.

And yet, in this meme-soaked era when loud events fade from the consciousness and are replaced by other loud events within days, it apparently takes what is essentially a Very Special Episode of Congress, packaged up like a documentary brimming with video clips and text-message screengrabs, to get the public’s attention.

And that public is … who, exactly?

The masses of Donald Trump supporters and opponents who have dug in their heels on both sides — those who think this is ridiculous political posturing and those who insist that day represented an existential threat to democracy — may not be the target audience. More likely, it is Americans who retain an open mind and have kind of moved on; who could use a reminder in the most American way possible: by being presented with an on-screen drama to consume. (Unless you watch Fox, which vociferously refused to air it.)

High-profile public legislative hearings about the workings of government — from the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 to the Watergate hearings in 1973 to the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 — have a history of drawing the nation’s attention and being their era’s version of must-see government TV.

But all those came in the days when a “phone” was something that made calls and was plugged into the wall — well before the era of media fragmentation produced by the internet and, a decade later, the rise of social media and content creation in your pocket.

The raw material presented Thursday night was at times banal and procedural (depositions, speeches). But at times (the violent and profane video montage, the eyewitness testimony of Capitol police officer Caroline Edwards), it felt compelling, terrifying and immediate.

“We’ve lost the line! We’ve lost the line!” viewers heard one Capitol police officer shout as he was being attacked by rioters. Yelled another, terror in his voice: “Officer down!” And this chilling shout, from the background of one scene of chaos: “We’re coming!”

Then the production values took center stage — a perfectly timed voiceover of Trump saying, “They were peaceful people” and “the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it” before the sequence fades out.

These are surely the moments that will be cannibalized on social in coming hours and days. So much of political discourse happens online these days, and what was once must-see TV is now on your phone, on demand. Content producers on TikTok and Twitter and Instagram are driving the moments to remember. And if this was a produced TV show, those will be its tiny offspring.

“People will be making their own spinoffs, a few seconds at a time,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Now … we’re in the age of developing stories as an interactive video game, where you take the coverage of that day and you turn it into a meme and get 30 million viewers. I think that’s how a lot of people are going to experience these hearings.”

So check out your social media feeds, 2022-style, for the next phase of this drama — political and entertaining and unsettling all at once, and aggressively, messily American.

“We watched the preseason. We watched the season. And now this is behind the scenes in `American Politics: The Sport,'” said John Baick, a historian at Western New England University. “I don’t think anyone’s going to remember where they were when they watched the Capitol investigations.”
___

Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at The Associated Press, has written about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

AP

A baby girl who was born under the rubble caused by an earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey receive...
Ghaith Alsayed and Bassem Mroue, Associated Press

Newborn, toddler saved from rubble in quake-hit Syrian town

Residents digging through a collapsed building in a northwest Syrian town discovered a crying infant whose mother appears to have given birth to her while buried underneath the rubble from this week’s devastating earthquake.
1 day ago
Powerball's second-largest jackpot — an estimated $1.2 billion — is up for grabs Wednesday. (Ke...
Associated Press

Lucky player in Seattle suburb wins $754.6M Powerball prize

Washington state lottery officials say a single winning ticket for a $754.6 million Powerball jackpot was sold at a department store in a Seattle suburb.
1 day ago
FILE - In this image from video released and partially redacted by the city of Memphis, Tenn., Tyre...
Adrian Sainz, Associated Press

13 Memphis officers could be disciplined in Nichols case

Officials say 13 Memphis officers could end up being disciplined in connection with the violent arrest of Tyre Nichols.
1 day ago
In this handout photo provided by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Nathan Lee Chasing ...
Rio Yamat, Associated Press

‘Dances With Wolves’ actor charged in Nevada sex abuse case

Former “Dances With Wolves” actor Nathan Chasing Horse has been formally charged in Nevada with eight felonies and two misdemeanors.
2 days ago
police tape outside of a Virginia elementary school...
Denise Lavoie and Ben Finley, Associated Press

Boy who shot teacher allegedly tried to choke another

An attorney for a teacher who was shot and wounded by a 6-year-old Virginia boy says in a legal notice that the first-grader constantly cursed at staff and teachers, chased students around and tried to whip them with his belt and once choked another teacher “until she couldn’t breathe.”
2 days ago
...
Associated Press

Jazz owner aims to showcase Utah, SLC with NBA All-Star Game

When the NBA All-Star game returns to Salt Lake City for the first time in three decades, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith anticipates the event will help build Utah into a destination for other major sporting events.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...
Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.
Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
A harrowing American moment, repackaged for prime time