Opinion | The Democrats Plan a Full Media Blowout Over Jan. 6

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When you turn on your television Thursday night to watch the kick-off of the January 6 congressional hearings, you won’t get the usual over-lit, droning Capitol Hill proceedings to which you’ve become accustomed. Instead, the committee intends to mount a grand media event, to pinch a phrase from scholars Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, a publicity extravaganza orchestrated like a product launch or political campaign to engage, dazzle and obsess the minds of the masses.

This is not to say the hearings will be without substance. To the contrary, everything we’ve been told so far about the committee’s findings indicates they will bring real proof of a conspiracy to subvert the election of Joe Biden and stage a coup to reinstall Donald Trump as president. Talk about the greatest political story ever told! But while ingesting the substance of the hearings, which promise to be nourishing, don’t overlook the platter on which it has been served. The committee has assigned James Goldston, former president of ABC News and veteran of Nightline, to present a slickly produced work of political entertainment, featuring live testimony as well as prerecorded segments, that will permanently cast the events of January 6 as an attempted coup. According to the New York Times, Goldston’s mandate is to fashion the hearing into six succinct episodes. Sort of like a bingeable Netflix series.

Many congressional hearings have sought to stop time and make the world heed their investigations. But few if any hearings have ever gone to these lengths to prepare a big show. Will the Democrats succeed? Will they go too far?

There’s nothing all that novel about a media event. We endure them in their mundane variety almost daily — press conferences, parades, opening-day ceremonies, demonstrations, debates and other affairs staged to influence and garner publicity. Even without the show-making skills of someone of Goldston’s caliber, a congressional hearing like the January 6 committee’s would qualify for the rubric, and it would be as worthy of our attention as previously televised proceedings from Congress — Kefauver’s organized crime hearings, Army-McCarthy, Iran-Contra, Benghazi and the doomed-before-the-final-vote impeachments of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (twice).

But the January 6 hearing architects aren’t shooting for just a chapter in history. They want a big fat book of their own. They regret having put all that work into the two Trump impeachments only to see the energy dissipate into acquittals. They won’t be satisfied until the January 6 hearings take on the contours of Watergate, that epoch-defining episode in which President Richard Nixon’s crimes were placed on exhibition and he was driven forever from public life. They mean to accomplish the same here for Trump.

Those ambitions are on display in the roll-out of the January 6 hearings, which conform to almost all of the prerequisites Dayan and Katz laid down for a major media event in their classic 1992 book, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History. Dayan and Katz’s first rule calls for the media event to be broadcast live. Sure enough, NBC, ABC, CBS, and the cable news networks have joined forces with Goldston to preempt their scheduled programming for the January 6 show, according to Axios’ Mike Allen, who broke the story of Goldston’s involvement. The timing of the hearings, just as summer rerun season starts, and the committee’s decision to present them as a “show,” couldn’t be more perfect from the television industry’s viewpoint. TV adores content that costs them almost nothing to air and attracts large audiences, media scholar Michael Socolow tells me, pointing to Trump rallies from the 2016 campaign.

“When thinking about how TV industry executives decide to air anything on U.S. television, you have to start by considering the ratings. Not political partisanship, not public service — ratings,” Socolow says.

The second rule is that the major media event must have the throw-weight to interrupt the usual broadcasting schedules. The committee checked this box, too. Even Rupert Murdoch intends to broadcast them, albeit on his less-watched Fox Business Network channel.

The third rule holds that the media event must be preplanned or scripted, as opposed to spontaneous. The hearings have this covered, offering a mix of live testimony and prerecorded blocks. The fourth, fifth and sixth rules are to attract large audiences (which will be a cinch as the hearing will be all over the dial), to present viewing the event as obligatory (done by all the advanced news coverage), and to supply an affirmative narration to the occasion, which most of the networks, except Murdoch’s, will likely do.

If the audience appears to need guidance, it’s always wise to create a bandwagon effect by deploying spokespersons who prime and tutor the audience on what to expect. Committee members Rep. Jamie Raskin, Democrat from Maryland, and Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican from Wyoming, have been playing that role. Raskin, who promised in April that “The hearings will tell a story that will really blow the roof off the House,” further roused the audience last week in a Vanity Fair podcast preview about the hearing. Cheney just completed her advance work on CBS Sunday Morning. In its own unintended way, even this column is building interest in the show. Such is the power of the media event rip current.

Nobody should doubt the inherent newsworthiness of the January 6 hearings. Attempted coups matter. Nobody should seek to invalidate the hearings as a sophisticated media pageant before they convene. But the January 6 hearings deserve our advance scrutiny for the new ground they appear to be breaking. You can’t project a message without a medium, so we’ll forever be debating how the presentation of events like this were doctored (by publicity, by production values, by slick scripting, by co-optation of the news networks, etc.) to achieve their political goals. But when the medium begins to supersede the message, as when the sauce overwhelms the meat, we must be prepared to say “no.”

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