Defying cynical critics who said no one would learn anything from its Jan. 6 hearings, the House select committee has made sure Americans learned plenty — presenting testimony that Donald Trump knew the crowd was armed when he invited them to march to the Capitol, for instance, and that he desperately wanted to join them. (Trump has disputed these claims.) But in addition to exploring the depths of Trump and the GOP’s depravity, the committee has taught House and Senate members how to run an effective, interesting and newsworthy hearing.
Let’s hope members of Congress were paying attention.
The Jan. 6 committee had many challenges. It had hundreds of witnesses and tens of thousands of documents; a complicated, multipart conspiracy to explain; and a press corps determined not to be impressed. The committee figured out that the normal style of hearings — five minutes of questioning per member, hours of rambling testimony, the presentation of impenetrable documents — would not accomplish its aims. It had to educate the public, lay out a compelling set of facts that might be the basis of criminal charges and make the case for reforms to prevent the next coup attempt.
You might be thinking: “The reason the hearings were so helpful was that loony Republicans weren’t making a mockery of the whole thing.” Well, yes, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House minority leader, did pull his members out in a fit of pique, leaving Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to appoint the two most — only? — responsible Republicans. Had the committee failed to also change its format, however, the hearings would not have made such an impression on voters (including Republicans increasingly weary of Trump). And it surely would not have received front-page coverage and top-of-the-show attention even on days there were no hearings.
James Goldston, a former president of ABC News who was brought in to advise the committee on the hearings, knows a thing or two about documentary television. That is essentially what the hearings have been — an opportunity to use a variety of visual means to present evidence and teach people something.
Goldston also knew that most viewers wouldn’t watch all the hearings from start to finish, which meant they had to include — just like any programming extending over weeks — previews, wrap-ups and even cliffhangers. (In our next episode, we will tell you the names of congresspeople who asked for pardons!) The committee told people in advance what each hearing would cover, so the media could begin discussing it and preparing the audience. The hearings even had a surprise guest star in witness Cassidy Hutchinson, whose name came out only hours before her appearance.
The Jan. 6 hearings also interspliced news footage, the crucial parts of depositions (leaving out the boring stuff) and live testimony. Videotaped footage allowed the camera to linger at times (helping to turn Sidney Powell’s Diet Dr Pepper into an instant meme) and let witnesses dig their own credibility graves (Sen. Josh Hawley scampering away from the Capitol on Jan. 6 after offering a fist-pump to protesters outside; Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleading the Fifth when asked questions concerning events leading up to the Jan. 6 riot).
Some people are visual learners, so there was plenty of gripping footage. Others like to read, and for them there were document excerpts, printed texts and contemporaneous notes from the people testifying. Others learn best by listening — so even if you didn’t get all the live testimony, there were plenty of succinct summaries and reviews from committee members.
The live testimony was concise, reserved for the most stunning revelations. The committee’s members knew what questions they would ask, and they kept the questions short. They were not the stars of the show.
The committee also understood the press has limited bandwidth. It can handle only a few revelations at a time. So the bombshells had to be spaced out, with periods between hearings for the media to repeat and amplify the juiciest parts. The committee even provided little intermissions during each hearing so the media could recap and viewers could catch their breath.
Republicans have acted as if there’s something wrong with holding compelling, well-organized and effective hearings. (Too slick! Overproduced!) This no doubt reflects their dismay that Democrats finally learned how to communicate in the age of Instagram and TikTok — and their soreness that they weren’t invited to create distractions.
Not every hearing will require these techniques, though doing away with the usual five-minute question format (in favor of counsel asking questions or designated members taking a longer chunk of time) would be a public service. For big, important hearings on essential investigations, the Jan. 6 committee’s work will be a model.
And for every hearing, members should consider the proceedings from the perspective of the audience (the public and the press). Keep it brief, use different forms of media, organize the hearing by subject matter and tell a story. That’s what a good trial lawyer, a good lecturer or a good TV producer does. And boy does it make a difference.