All three major American broadcast television networks will preempt their popular entertainment programs Thursday night to air the first prime-time hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — among the biggest live spotlights granted to a congressional hearing in decades.
The announcements by CBS, ABC and NBC that they would relinquish time blocks usually dominated by “Young Sheldon,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and spinoffs of “Law & Order” were a significant early victory for members of the Democratic-led panel who want to draw public attention to what they have determined was a deadly plot, with connections to the Trump White House, to overturn the results of the 2020 election and undermine American democracy.
In one sign of the stakes involved, the committee has tapped former ABC News president James Goldston to help hone its presentation, a source with knowledge of the situation told The Post. Axios first reported Goldston’s role on Monday.
All three networks will turn to their marquee evening news anchors — Norah O’Donnell for CBS, David Muir for ABC and Lester Holt for NBC — to lead coverage.
Yet, it remains unclear whether the hearings can capture the nation in the same way that the Watergate hearings did in 1973 or the Iran-contra hearings did in 1987. Viewers today have many options other than the networks, and plans to televise the rest of the committee’s hearings — many of which will take place during low-viewership daytime hours — have not yet been announced.
And the committee may have a hard time getting through to many of the Republican viewers it yearns to reach: While CNN and MSNBC will air the hearings, Fox said Monday that it will relegate its live broadcast to lesser-watched sister channel Fox Business Network, leaving the usual Fox News prime-time opinion block — including the 8 p.m. hour hosted by Tucker Carlson, who has been highly critical and dismissive of the committee’s work — unaffected that evening. Fox’s much-smaller conservative competitor, Newsmax, has said it will air at least one hour of the hearing.
Broadcast network executives say it was never a foregone conclusion that they would air the hearing live. The Washington bureau chief for CBS News said the network wanted to make sure the presentation would be newsworthy before committing to a live broadcast, an arrangement reserved only for the biggest moments on television.
Ultimately, though, CBS was convinced. “It was fairly obvious that this was something we needed to do,” Mark Lima said in an interview. “I think it’s our responsibility to show it. It’s the committee’s responsibility to prove their case and remind the American public why this is so important.”
The Washington bureau chief for ABC News said the network’s reporting on the Jan. 6 insurrection has thus far focused on “trying to help out the audience obtain all the facts and the context” about what happened. Showing the hearing is “the natural next step in that reporting,” Jonathan Greenberger said. “Like any story, we work hard to cover it from every angle and follow the story to completion.”
Former NBC News executive Mark Lukasiewicz said the hearings are “certainly the sort of thing that I would have advocated that we air live” — even though the networks are likely to lose lucrative prime-time advertising revenue. “I can’t imagine the Congress of the United States pausing for commercial breaks,” said Lukasiewicz, who served as senior vice president of specials for NBC News.
The relative unity of the special committee members should give the television broadcast a better flow, with fewer interruptions than at a typical hearing, where partisans lob combative questions at witnesses invited by the other party, Lukasiewicz said. “It’s much more likely that the audience for this hearing is going to get a cohesive, well-structured, understandable narrative,” he said.
Ari Melber, a legal analyst and MSNBC host, said that such a hearing has “the potential to break through in a way that most of congressional activity does not” — especially “if many channels cover it, so it feels wall-to-wall, and it’s picked up in the wider culture.”
But that will happen only if the committee manages to create “moments” that go viral. “I don’t believe it would be a success if it just relives and retells the story of that day with a few extra details,” he added.
And there’s still the broader question of whether it will get through to conservative audiences, which mostly brushed off the daytime-TV spectacles of President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings. Fairly quickly after Jan. 6, many conservative media voices — including hosts on Fox News, Newsmax and One America News — sought to reframe the insurrection as either not a big deal or to allege groundlessly that it was the work of undercover liberal operatives. Michael Fanone, the former D.C. police officer who was dragged into a mob and beaten on Jan. 6, said in an interview on CNN on Sunday that he doubts the hearings will “move the needle” with skeptical partisans.
Fox News said Monday that it will deploy its news anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum to helm the real-time coverage of the hearings on Fox Business Network. But the highly rated prime-time block of Fox opinion shows hosted by Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham will remain intact Thursday night, even as the network said it will “will cover the hearings as news warrants.” Fox will instead address the hearings during a two-hour “reaction special” at 11 p.m., preempting its popular “Gutfeld!” late-night humor show.
Christopher Hahn, a former congressional staffer and podcast host who appears occasionally on Fox News to offer a left-leaning perspective, predicted that many conservative outlets also will focus attention on some of the “counterprogramming” planned by Trump allies — a wave of Republican politicians who will make themselves available to comment on cable or social media.
Even conservative hosts who see merit in some of the allegations that are likely to be aired Thursday night will be reluctant to devote much time to them, he predicted. “Their audience doesn’t want to hear that,” he said, “and they’re going to give their audience what they want to hear.”
The Jan. 6 insurrection
Congressional hearings: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held a series of high-profile hearings to share its findings with the U.S. public. In what was likely its final hearing, the committee issued a surprise subpoena seeking testimony from former president Donald Trump. Here’s a guide to the biggest hearing moments so far.
Will there be charges? Committee chair Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) said the committee will make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, though no decision has been made on the target of a referral.
The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.
Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.