The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Jan. 6 committee is reaching its audience. Is that enough?

A House Jan. 6 committee hearing is seen on a television at Roxy Delicatessen on June 9, 2022, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday night, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) appeared on Fox News. Host Bret Baier asked the senator if he had been watching the hearings held by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol and, if so, if he had learned anything new from them.

“I have not watched the January 6 hearings,” Scott said. “I was actually in the Senate when it happened. So I don’t need an education on what actually happened.” He derided the hearings as a “made for TV” event aimed more at “diverting the public’s attention and less to do with finding the truth.”

One of two things is happening here. Either Scott has not watched the hearings and is making assumptions about what they show without having seen them, or he has watched the hearings and is hoping to characterize them negatively for the Fox News audience. Either way, his response was representative: a Republican who wasn’t paying attention but nonetheless didn’t claim to see the committee’s work as informative.

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On Wednesday, Quinnipiac University released polling assessing Americans’ views of the Capitol riot and the House probe. It found that about half of Republicans said they weren’t paying particularly close attention to news about the committee’s work — but neither was a quarter of Democrats.

The pollsters then overlaid those responses on a number of related poll questions. So, for example, respondents were asked if they had learned anything new from the hearings. Most said they hadn’t. Among those who were paying very close attention to the hearings, though, two-thirds said they had. Those paying no attention? Nearly all, like Scott, said they hadn’t.

This, of course, is what you would expect! If you’re paying no attention, you’re not going to learn anything new.

But, then, that’s also the challenge the committee faces. Its goal is to broaden the public’s understanding of what occurred both during the riot and in the weeks prior. In order for that understanding to be broadened, though, it needs an audience to tune in. Those who are watching are learning more. But lots of people aren’t watching.

Again, this is confounded with partisanship. Republicans aren’t as likely to be watching — often clearly a conscious choice. Republicans, such as Scott, will often have a preconceived notion of what the hearings aim to accomplish and will therefore pay them little heed. Democrats are influenced in the other direction: They want to watch programming that validates their assumptions about Trump’s nefariousness. So they do — and they declare that the hearings have been a success.

Consider another Quinnipiac question: Does Trump bear blame for the riot? Most Americans say he does, thanks to an overwhelming majority of Democrats holding that view. Three-quarters of those who are paying very close attention to the hearings think he bears blame — but is that because of what they’ve seen, or is it an opinion they brought to the first hearing anyway? Two-thirds of those paying no attention think he bears little blame, a view that they definitionally hold independent of the hearings.

In a flurry of questions, the views of those watching or not watching the hearings align with the views of Democrats (who are more likely to be watching) and Republicans (who are more likely not to be).

For example:

And for example:

In other words, it’s clear that the Jan. 6 committee is reaching a broad audience, but it’s not clear that it is influencing understanding of the post-election efforts. And if it’s not doing that, its success is necessarily limited.

Consider a key question from the Quinnipiac poll, one that gets at the committee’s central focus. Americans are generally split on whether the attack on the Capitol risks occurring again in some form.

The committee has been very pointed in arguing that the conditions that undergirded the riot are largely still existent. It sees its mandate as helping to uproot the possibility that a similar act of violence could occur, something that it warns is quite possible. But here again, the same split: Even a quarter of those who say they’re paying close attention haven’t taken that message away — if they’ve picked up on it at all. If they’re actually even paying close attention.

In that interview Tuesday, Baier also asked if Scott could support Donald Trump in 2024, given the investigation into the riot.

Scott — who, again, said he hadn’t been paying attention to the hearings — replied in the affirmative.

“If President Trump is the nominee,” Scott said, “of course, we support him.”

Again placing Scott in line with the bulk of his party.

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