There was a striking and somber uniformity across most major television channels Thursday night, as broadcast networks abandoned their usual sitcoms and dramas to stand alongside cable news channels to provide live coverage of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN and MSNBC were among the networks that carried two full hours of the hearing — an event they largely let unfurl on its own, with few interruptions or enhancements, waiting until the end for their anchors and guests to offer solemn commentary.
“This was horrible,” said CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell, after a Capitol Police officer described slipping in an injured colleague’s blood and being knocked unconscious. “So many big bombshell scoops,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Fox News, though, stuck to its regular block of conservative opinion shows — frequently showing a live glimpse of the proceedings on Capitol Hill but pointedly omitting the accompanying audio, while its hosts and guests criticized the committee floridly.
“The dullest, the most boring, there’s absolutely nothing new, multi-hour Democratic fundraiser masquerading as a Jan. 6 hearing,” Fox host Sean Hannity declared.
“They’ve interrupted their regularly scheduled programming to bring you yet another extended prime-time harangue from Nancy Pelosi and Liz Cheney about Donald Trump and QAnon,” scoffed fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson. “It’s deranged, and we’re not playing along. This is the only hour on an American news channel that will not be carrying their propaganda live.”
A banner on the screen read: “THE JANUARY 6TH ‘SHOW TRIAL’ IS UNDERWAY.”
Live coverage of the hearing was relegated to Fox’s far-less-watched sister channel, Fox Business Network, where two Fox News anchors weighed in during a break. Bret Baier reflected on a video compilation of the riot shared by the committee: “It does bring up the thoughts and feelings of that day,” he said. “It was heinous. It was dark.”
“I don’t think there was a lot of new ground that was really pushed here,” said co-anchor Martha MacCallum. She questioned why the hearing did not explore the death of Ashli Babbitt, a Trump supporter shot and killed by a police officer as she stormed the Capitol.
Most networks stuck with a fairly austere presentation, adding few of the whiz-bang touches that decorate their election nights and other live events. Some offered a smidgen of newsy graphics, such as a bullet-pointed bio of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the committee’s vice chair. There were few attempts at instant synthesis: Instead of a newsy, updating chyron, ABC mostly just bannered “Attack on the Capitol: The Investigation” across the bottom of the screen.
The careful tracking of the hearings extended to the occasional bursts of vulgarity revealed in testimony and documents “Thanks to your bulls---, we are now under siege,” Cheney read aloud, unbleeped, in an email written on Jan. 6 from a counsel to Vice President Mike Pence to a legal adviser for President Donald Trump.
Only when the committee took a break did the screen images vary much from channel to channel. CBS cut to a poignant scene in a corner of the hearing room of two people weeping together: Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn and Sandra Garza, longtime girlfriend of Dunn’s late colleague Brian D. Sicknick, who engaged with rioters on Jan. 6 and died the following day.
On CNN, viewers heard from Chris Wallace, the veteran Fox anchor who left the network late last year and later said it was in part because of Carlson’s efforts to downplay Jan. 6 or promote a conspiracy theorist’s view of it as a “false flag” event. Wallace commended the hearing as “a very powerful, well-produced presentation,” with special attention to the riot footage: “They don’t lose their capacity to shock and horrify you,” he said. “This is a mob breaching the walls of the citadel.”
On NBC, host Chuck Todd told anchor Lester Holt that the hearing had provided “the investigation we didn’t get to have in the second impeachment.” Compared to most Trump-era hearings, he said, “this one truly has the receipts. This connects the dots.”
They remained unconvinced at Fox News, though, where MacCallum and a fellow anchor engaged more directly with the substance of the hearing, after the opinion shows were done at 11 p.m.
“Did this move the needle at all?” asked Shannon Bream, wondering about undecided or wavering voters.
“I kind of doubt it,” MacCallum responded.