Margaret Sullivan: The Jan. 6 hearing was horrifying. It also gave me hope.
Sun., June 12, 2022
The hearing was riveting. It was skillfully and wisely presented for an American audience that hasn’t been paying attention to every news development or investigation stemming from the incomprehensible Capitol assault of Jan. 6. An audience that, for a multitude of reasons, may have been tuned out.
And it was horrifying. Can anyone who heard U.S. Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards testify before the House select committee Thursday night ever forget her account of slipping in blood as she struggled through hours of hand-to-hand combat with her own countrymen who were calling her a traitor? I can never forget hearing her say these six words: “It was carnage. It was chaos.”
So, yes. Riveting. Horrifying. But strangely, for me, at least, the hearing was also heartening – and even inspiring. The material was awful to behold, but these two hours, presented by every broadcast TV network without interruption during prime time, radiated something simple and deeply important: the truth.
This truth was intertwined with a genuine quest for accountability. Such a quest may be futile. But that doesn’t make it any less crucial.
For a couple of hours on Thursday evening, I felt something that – amid the brutal onslaught of recent mass shootings, including in my hometown of Buffalo, New York – I haven’t felt in a while. Deep pride in being American and at least some slight hope that our nation might be able to right itself.
In general, the news media’s handling of the hearings was a positive part of this. I made it a point to watch the hearing on the three broadcast networks, starting out with CBS and changing occasionally to ABC and NBC. The cable-news audience, after all, is largely spoken for; they’ve already made up their minds.
That Fox did not air the hearings on its main channel is no surprise. It’s deplorable, and the final piece of evidence, if anyone needed one, that the “News” part of that network’s name is just more propaganda that no one should indulge.
If this hearing wasn’t newsworthy on a strictly empirical basis, what could possibly be? The hyped-up coverage of a “caravan” of migrants moving toward the southern border?
The broadcast networks, I figured, were the place where open-minded and perhaps even undecided Americans might stumble across the hearings and be struck by the raw evidence of that day’s carnage and chaos, where they might be forced to confront proof of the former president’s culpability.
The network anchors – Norah O’Donnell at CBS, Lester Holt at NBC and David Muir at ABC – did well. They may not have the full gravitas or trust that Walter Cronkite commanded in an earlier era, but all have developed a strong relationship with the audiences of their nightly newscasts.
For the most part, these news anchors simply got out of the way of the hearing, but by their somber demeanor they communicated that this was something of crucial importance. I didn’t hear every word on every network, but I heard no effort to downplay what had happened on Jan. 6 or to give equal time to liars and election deniers. That was refreshing.
The whole presentation and the coverage of it came off as serious, accessible, clear and driven by mission – to tell the truth. The networks, as far as I could tell, did not shy from allowing their audiences to hear the profanity of Trump’s longtime loyalist, former Attorney General Bill Barr, when he described the claims of significant election fraud and a rigged outcome in profane terms.
The audience was warned, several times, that there would be disturbing images and explicit language, but they were not shielded from it.
To their credit, the networks decided to treat Americans as sentient grown-ups. They did not indulge in what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen sarcastically described, in reference to Fox’s appalling decision, as the public’s right not to know.
A CBS News poll suggests that some Americans could be affected by what they see in these hearings. Seven in 10 think it’s “at least somewhat important” to find out what happened and who was involved on Jan. 6.
After Thursday night – if they were paying even a modicum of attention – they should have a better idea of the answers. And there is much more to come.
On Friday morning, with the truth casting its essential light, things felt just a tiny bit less grim.
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