The hearings of the January 6th Committee have flopped. Despite rave reviews from critics, audience reception has been tepid at best. Polling finds no indication that the hearings have changed anyone’s mind about January 6, 2021. Nor have the hearings resulted in any judicial action or big arrests.
The January 6 hearings fail as politics because they fail as television. They are a television event, in the same way the January 6 riot was an internet event. The committee retained ABC executive James Goldston, whose resume includes Good Morning America and Nightline, to advise on the production. And it is a production: This summer’s hearings formed a season-long arc, with episodes paced and plotted like installments of a streaming docuseries. Each begins with Chairman Bennie Thompson asserting the grand importance of elections; Vice Chair Liz Cheney follows with a teaser of the episode’s particular drama, invariably a description of the villain’s antics. Then committee members, a different one each episode, provide long-form narration.
Witness testimonies are arranged in a clear sequence and guided by scripted questions that highlight interpersonal conflicts and the emotional turmoil aroused by the events described. Interspersed throughout are pre-produced video segments narrated by junior investigators, featuring montages of recorded interviews, selfie videos, phone recordings, and 3D-rendered graphics representing the White House and other relevant locations. It’s extravagantly overproduced for a congressional hearing, but just about right for a multi-part TV series. The most superfluous segment in the summer season’s finale slowly zooms in on a CGI television playing Fox News in the digital diorama of the White House dining room. This confection is meant to drive home Congresswoman Elaine Luria’s riveting description of a man watching television for three hours.
Knowingly or not, the committee members struggle against this overproduction. A normal congressional hearing can make for great television (think of Adam Schiff and Doug Collins locking horns for the first Trump impeachment, or the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings). Those hearings arrest our attention because, as media theorist Marshall McLuhan explained, TV works best when it’s airing some public ritual. There is a possibility for common discovery and new revelations on both sides of the camera. The back-and-forth rhythm of cross-examination, the experience of thinking up an objection and hearing someone on your team raise it, the shared uncertainty about the outcome—all work well in the medium. Live hearings embrace TV’s inherent simultaneity. The drama moves from camera to living room at the speed of electrons, as the audience experiences the same thing at the same time as the people on the screen (Schiff’s earnestness, Kavanaugh’s exasperation). The simultaneity encourages solidarity between viewer and presenter—or in this case, citizen and official.
A “cool medium,” to use McLuhan’s term, TV characteristically demands energy from its audience. But instead of drawing us in as participants in a ritual, overproduced content asks us to sit back and take it in passively. This dynamic runs counter to the full potential of the medium. The organization of the January 6 hearings into predigested plot points suppresses the possibility of audience participation. It “warms up” the cool medium.
That’s a problem, and not only for the hearings’ appeal as a show. If the January 6 hearings can’t foster a sense of participation in a public ritual, they stand little chance of becoming part of America’s political life, or of shaping political opinions, as the Watergate hearings did in the early 1970s. The layers of content—rehearsed statements, interview montages, digitally generated scenes—distance the viewer from the presenter, highlighting the gulf between citizens and government officials, and thus reinforcing the alienation of many voters from Washington. There’s no audience stand-in—no representative of those who, in the moment, are coming to know shocking facts—on-screen. We only see a bunch of people lecturing.
Setting aside the content of the lectures, the highly produced format of the hearings sends the message that politics is a story other people tell you, and that congressional hearings and other ostensible fact-finding procedures are mere pretexts for that telling. Think what you will about the events of January 6. If these hearings are a token of our democracy, as the committee members insist, what are we to make of the fact that their narrative comes pre-packaged? Their format seeks to forestall uncontrolled outcomes, which is another way of saying that it seeks to suppress the participation of viewers.
Hearings are part of the work our representatives do, and TV can allow us to watch our representatives do that work in real time. But the TV version of the January 6 hearings doesn’t, in fact, let us watch in real time; and it would not be surprising if, in the minds of passive recipients of the packaged message, renegade thoughts began to emerge. A great deal of time, energy, and money were devoted to the production; one wonders whether these resources might have been better spent on the behind-the-scenes labor of assembling a strong enough case to justify arresting the former president. Or on, say, passing bills. Or something in the real world. Why the song-and-dance?
The committee makes a classic mistake: trying to address a problem with the form by intensifying the content. Since the committee took the time and effort to produce a big TV special, the members need to fight the suspicion that what they’re communicating is not urgent.
For some, the way to convey urgency is simply to tell the audience how urgent things are. Reps. Adam Schiff and Adam Kinzinger both stress repeatedly “how close we came” to the end of American democracy. This is a classic instance of “telling it” rather than “showing it,” which any editor will tell you undermines the power of communication. The committee’s primary strategy, however, has been to make the January 6 narrative resemble a salacious popular entertainment genre: the true crime miniseries. In that genre, the pilot episode starts the story in medias res, drawing in the audience with a moment of high drama, then backfills circumstance and motive. The hearings followed this approach, opening with testimony from Capitol police officers who described the explosion of violence. The story then backtracked to Election Day 2020, and from there walked the audience through an intricate conspiracy. Criminal mastermind Donald J. Trump, says Rep. Cheney, “over multiple months . . . oversaw and coordinated a sophisticated, seven-part plan.” All seven parts of the plan are covered by the hearings. One installment explains Trump’s “pressure campaign” to get Vice President Mike Pence not to certify electoral votes; one exposes his requests that the Justice Department issue a letter saying the votes were suspect; another reveals his demands that state election officials scrounge up more votes.
“These efforts were not some minor or ad hoc enterprise, concocted overnight,” Cheney assures us. “Each required planning and coordination. Some required significant funding. All of them were overseen by President Trump.” In instructing viewers as to how it all fits together, Cheney assigns a lot of active verbs to the former president. He “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame.” He “summoned a violent mob and directed them illegally to march.” He “oversaw and personally participated in an effort in multiple states” to intimidate election officials. We’re meant to get the picture of an active and sophisticated conspirator, brimming with plans, forethought, and agency.
This picture of Donald Trump is less an inference from the facts than a necessity of the hearings’ docudrama format. The committee plotted its telling of this story, beat by beat. Such elaborate preparation is justifiable only if it accords with what it is depicting—only if Trump likewise dedicated immense forethought, deliberation, and expense to the events described. An “ad hoc enterprise, concocted overnight” wouldn’t deserve a seven-part TV extravaganza devoted to its explication. One expects Cheney would have described a “nine-part plan” had there been time and material for nine episodes, or a “five-part plan” had there been only enough for five. The medium, to use another McLuhan term, determines the message.
Yet the evidence the committee presents doesn’t fit the dramatic picture it paints of the former president and his actions. To state the obvious, Trump failed. All of America knows he failed. Each episode, explicating one part of the “seven-part plan,” reveals an institution the president failed to get on his side: the VP’s office, state officials, the Department of Justice, the Secret Service, even—in the tale of former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson—the presidential limo driver. Nobody came on board with the “Stop the Steal” campaign, despite weeks of prodding and promises. Reality seeps through the slick production: There was nothing Trump could do, and he raged against his impotence.
By presenting evidence to this effect, the hearings can’t help but reveal the truth about January 6 and the president’s attempts to challenge and overturn the 2020 election results: The president, his closest advisors, and those supporters of his who led the charge on the Capitol were acting not from an abundance of agency, but from a dearth of it. The entire last hearing before August recess was about Trump’s inaction on the fateful day. He and his entourage did what they did because they felt there was nothing to do. They had no options, no plan, no cause, and no hope.
This despair is visible everywhere in the witness testimony, even if the committee never realizes its importance. The committee relishes a confrontational White House meeting three weeks before January 6, seeing it as so damning that it offers an hour-long play-by-play of the insults and the yelling. In this episode, we learn that Trump “told White House lawyers . . . that they weren’t offering him any solutions, but [Sidney] Powell and others were, so why not try what Ms. Powell and others were proposing?” And it wasn’t just the president. Trump campaign staffer Robert Sinners tells the committee, “as the road continued and as it was failure, failure, failure, that got formulated as ‘What we have on the table, let’s just do that.’” One of Trump’s advisors told an Arizona official to “just do it and let the courts sort it out.”
In the episode about Trump’s frustrations with state officials, the committee plays a clip of far-right internet personality Nicholas Fuentes saying to his streaming audience, “What are we going to do? What can you and I do to a state legislator? Besides kill ’em, although we should not do that—I’m not advising that, but I mean, what else can you do, right?” The committee cites this clip as a threat of violence. That’s not what it is. It’s an admission of defeat. Fuentes’s flippancy about violence shows what’s really behind it all: not a plan, not a conspiracy, but despair.
This mentality arises easily in minds trained by social media. Put something out there; let the algorithm do your thinking and planning for you; let the invisible processes figure out the result. Keep failing, keep tweeting, until something goes viral. “What do we have on the table? Let’s just do it.” The internet is an even “cooler” medium than television. It works only with constant activity, endless audience participation. On the internet, there is no content except what we generate ourselves. In the social media ecosystem, it’s better to have meaningless content than empty airwaves, which, of course, is why we have so much nonsense.
The internet is also more simultaneous than TV. In the online world, events and responses and counter-responses flow together into a single “discourse.” Committee members make much of the fact that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani insisted on seizing voting machines despite having no evidence that the votes had been rigged. But Giuliani probably expected the evidence vindicating his claim to pop up as the machines were being seized. Planning, deliberation, execution, evidence-finding, and vindication weren’t in sequence; all were envisioned as happening in the same instant. The same style of thinking brought us “Pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it” and “Invade the country to find the WMDs.” Faced with paralyzing complexity or a public culture jumbled by an ever-fragmenting media, we’re tempted to act and see what happens. It may be illogical, but more to the point, it’s non-linear—the kind of thinking electronic media trains us to perform, as McLuhan points out. This is your brain on the internet algorithm; shitposting becomes a means of doing politics.
On the night of January 6, long after the Capitol had been cleared of rioters and a full hour after Congress reconvened to certify the election results, LifeSiteNews posted an interview with one of the rioters. He is calm at first, but he grows more agitated over the course of the video, as if the exhilaration were wearing off. No less than six times in the seven-minute video, he asks, with perfect earnestness, “What were we supposed to do?”
Faced with the same dead end as their president, the rioters simply acted. Once inside the Capitol, they did the only thing they could think to do: post. They posted photos from Nancy Pelosi’s office, streamed videos from the Capitol Rotunda, and recorded videos of each other wandering the halls. They posted so much that dozens, hundreds of them were later identified when law enforcement used their social media posts to nail them. Did they think that posting about themselves would change anything? Who knows? Ultimately, that was the secondary concern. To an extent that the committee cannot admit, it was not an old-fashioned conspiracy, but rather the headless monster of social media that commanded the mayhem of January 6. A great deal of it was performed in order to be broadcast. Mission accomplished.
In the season finale, in good true-crime fashion, the committee constructs a minute-by-minute timeline of events, cutting back and forth between the White House and Capitol Hill in the hours between the initial breach and the late afternoon. It’s a tight script, but it’s anticlimactic, because there’s nothing to show. The main action isn’t action at all: For hours Trump sits in the dining room, watching TV, and for hours the rioters mill around aimlessly.
In my estimation, the emptiness is the real tragedy of January 6. The stakes were so low. Nobody seems to have believed that politics offered any scope for meaningful action, except insofar as politics means media spectacle. And if media spectacle is the most anyone—rioter or representative—can aspire to effect, then people will act with no reason, no plans, and no consideration for the common good. I find myself wondering: In what kind of country must Ashli Babbitt lose her life and Capitol Police endure beatings over selfies? In what kind of country does a true crime miniseries pass for a democratic process? The election was over. Donald Trump had lost. And everyone still sacrificed so much so that they could broadcast videos of themselves calling themselves patriots.
The committee won’t stare into this particular abyss because, like most of us, it’s not sure what to do with the internet’s role in the events of January 6 (and indeed, in our political culture broadly). One witness notes that “it feels almost silly to talk about a tweet.” (Is it any less silly to talk about a TV miniseries?) When it’s not silly, it’s sinister. Rep. Jamie Raskin, in episode seven, declares that “the creation of the internet and social media has given today’s tyrants tools of propaganda and disinformation that yesterday’s despots could only have dreamed of.” Kinzinger adds that “one of the best examples of the lengths to which President Trump would go to stay in power” is that he “scour[ed] the internet to support his conspiracy theories.”
This is a bizarre, precisely backward interpretation. Donald Trump did not concoct narratives and plans, then approach the internet for confirmation. It was the other way around; he was looking for something, anything that might help him get what he wanted. In this regard, he was well trained by social media. Unlike television, the internet is irreducibly simultaneous. There is no broadcaster-audience distinction. Online, Trump was no more in charge than anyone else, and no less a part of the audience than anyone else. At one point he told acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue, “You guys may not be following the internet the way I do.” Trump experienced the internet as a source of knowledge about what to think, not as an instrument for buttressing an already laid-out train of thought. Saying “you guys may not be following the internet” is like saying “you guys may not be watching CNN.” It’s a charge that they are not well informed about what’s being said, what has currency.
Raskin and Kinzinger imagine that Trump used the internet the way they themselves are trying to use TV: to disseminate a ready-made narrative and a set of instructions to passive viewers. One cannot help but feel that the committee is concerned to shore up this older way of instructing citizens. The committee identifies the competing medium with seditious falsehood (“disinformation”). To anyone accustomed to a “warm” medium of well shaped content, all information transmitted by a medium as “cool” as social media looks like disinformation. (See the arguments over Covid masks and social distancing.) But this is an uphill battle in today’s media environment. The relative warmth of television—the possibility of crafting a single narrative for broadcast—makes everything on TV appear to Internet Man as propaganda. (Again, see Covid.)
The clash between TV politics and internet politics underlies the January 6 hearings. In truth, it’s what kicked off the whole mess in the first place. Presidential elections, at least as we now operate and present them, are the ultimate TV spectacles. Whether your horse is winning or losing, it’s exciting. Republican or Democrat, you’re glued to the screen with everyone else, learning the outcome along with the people onscreen. Everyone reacts to states being called, projections being made and modified, tallies going up as the evening rushes to the finish line. It is TV at its “coolest,” a nationalized and all-encompassing public ritual, overriding all local and interpersonal forms of politics.
The internet creates different expectations and habits. It too demands participation—not by citizens of a nation who are witnesses to events unfolding before them, but by nodes in a network that itself is an event. And this network has less patience for procedure. Viewed from online, a televised public ritual looks like propaganda, and the TV audience is not actively participating in but passively downloading a message written (like the internet’s algorithms) behind the scenes. Someone in a precinct in Miami tweets, and the network absorbs his claims, while others post. The social media network sees itself as ahead of the curve, more informed, less beholden to “the narrative.” Whether this perception is accurate or inaccurate, and whether the mental habit it produces is good or bad for us as a people, it has had real, concrete effects. To Internet Man, the very fact that the 2020 election was a TV event marked it as propaganda. It was fake—not just the reporting, but the event itself. Trump asked Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, “Why wouldn’t you want to find the right answer, Brad, instead of keep saying that the numbers are right? . . . We just want the truth, it’s simple.” The numbers on TV are real, Trump admits, but they are not the truth, which is to be found in the blizzard of social media where Internet Man imagines the real truth-tellers offer shocking revelations.
The baby boom generation expected TV to usher in a more perfect form of participatory democracy, encouraged perhaps by McLuhan’s prediction that it would render us a “global village.” But for a half century or more, elites have used TV to disseminate narratives and instruction, not recognizing (as did McLuhan) that these activities more befit print or film. Our elites have learned to manufacture consent. But sustaining TV as a “hot” medium becomes far more challenging when an obviously “cooler” and more participatory medium breaks its monopoly, shattering the consensus point of view into vast, uncontrollable networks of speakers and fact-finders.
The populist right and the dirtbag left have revived the demand for participatory democracy. For them, participatory democracy looks like the networks of discourse and organization found online, rather than electoral politics. They don’t accept that national elections made for TV reflect the will of the people. They generally suspect there’s some production happening in the background, whether it’s the Democratic Party apparatus marginalizing a leading candidate in favor of a senile member of the establishment, or state-level RINOs connecting voting machines to the internet so that Italian-Venezuelan hackers can switch votes. Some of these suspicions may be accurate; many are obviously not. But as a country we must deal with the truth they reflect: Online Americans reject the mass-man model of politics that TV has kept on life support.
There’s reason to hope the internet will facilitate forms of political life that the TV age suppressed. We need new channels for political participation, so that we may de-emphasize large-scale mass events and restore local communities and interpersonal organizing. The made-for-TV January 6 hearings push in the opposite direction, and in all likelihood they will further divide the country, not because of their obvious partisan animus, but because they double down on democracy as an alienated spectacle, suppressing audience-citizen participation rather than informing it.
Any way forward to repair our country’s tattered political culture requires acknowledging that Online Americans are restless. Left with no means of productive engagement, they too easily descend into nihilism. We cannot address this danger by treating democracy as a lecture. On the surface, the January 6 hearings are about Donald Trump and January 6. Their real subject, however, is the agony of television politics, frightened as its practitioners are of the internet politics that threatens to replace it. Season two airs this fall.
Philip Jeffery is a deputy opinion editor of Newsweek.
Image by Robert Course-Baker via Creative Commons. Image cropped.