A heartbreaking American moment, repackaged for prime time

NEW YORK (AP) – Promised: new images. New testimony. New and damning revelations designed to eliminate all doubt. Hired to pack everything for the airwaves: a former president of network news. The time slot: 8:00 p.m. on the East Coast, once a hotspot for the nation’s most important television programming.

Presented in prime time and carefully calibrated for a viewing audience (itself increasingly an anachronism), the January 6 ratings debut was, in essence, a summer rerun. Conceived as a gripping legislative docudrama about an event most of the country saw live 18 months ago, it tried mightily to break new ground in a nation of short attention spans and endless distractions.


But did he? Can he? Even with gripping, violent video and the integrity of American democracy potentially at stake, a brilliant week-long production that continues with yesterday’s news – news that has been watched, processed, and debated until nausea – break through the static and make a difference today?

“The idea of ​​a televised investigative process perhaps seems a bit outdated when so many people already had so much access to what happened,” said Rebecca Adelman, professor and chair of media studies. and communication at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It’s a population that is obviously tired of a lot of things. I don’t know how much sustained attention anyone has left at this point.”

That’s why the hearings needed a key component that most legislative committees lack: a professional TV executive – someone who could curate and curate violent amateur and surveillance videos, 3D motion graphics, eyewitness accounts and depositions in a script constructed to echo.

Enter James Goldston, former president of ABC News. The language used by Axios to signal its involvement was instructive. Goldston, he said, would approach Thursday night’s hearing “as if it were a blockbuster special investigation” with “the ingredients of a national event.”

These are not often words you hear about a committee hearing. These are the words of showmanship – something politics always had, real governance less so.

During the highly publicized (for its day) Kennedy administration, historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” – an event staged expressly for the purpose of being noticed. While this is not the case with the January 6 hearings – real governance is underway – the buildup and presentation makes it easy to conclude otherwise.

Could this be the only way to get the public’s attention? After all, since January 6, 2021, much of America has moved on to new worries.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, seized on some of them in a series of tweets attacking the committee. ‘When is the prime time hearing,’ he asked in six tweets, followed by ‘on $5 a gallon of gas’, ‘on formula shortages’, ‘on crime records in Democratic-run cities,” “on left-wing riots in 2020,” “on record grocery prices,” “on Democrats attacking parental rights at school board meetings,” and “on threats against Supreme Court justices and their families.”

By many appearances, the country is functioning as it was before the uprising. Joe Biden was inaugurated as scheduled 14 days after the uprising. No evidence of voter fraud has surfaced. The pandemic has receded. People talk about gun prices and gasoline prices and Russia – not its interference in the US election, but its invasion of Ukraine.

All of this, of course, belies the fact that the Capitol Riot undermined the sanctity and security of the democratic process. After more than 200 years in which the peaceful transfer of power has been taken for granted in America, suddenly and very violently it has not.

And yet, in this meme-soaked era where loud events fade from consciousness and are replaced by other loud events within days, what is apparently needed is what is essentially a very special episode of Congress, packaged like a documentary brimming with video and text clips – screenshots of messages, to catch the audience’s attention.

And this audience is… who, exactly?

The masses of Donald Trump supporters and opponents who have dug their heels in on both sides — those who think it’s ridiculous political posturing and those who insist that day posed an existential threat to democracy — don’t may not be the target audience. More likely, it’s the Americans who keep an open mind and have somehow moved on; who could use an encore in the most American way possible: being presented with on-screen drama to consume. (Unless you watch Fox, who vehemently refused to air it.)

High-profile public legislative hearings into the workings of government—from the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 to the Watergate hearings in 1973 to the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987—have a history of capturing the nation’s attention and being the essential version of their time. -see government television.

But this all happened back when a “telephone” was something that made calls and was plugged into the wall – long before the era of media fragmentation produced by the internet and, a decade later, the rise social media and content creation in your pocket.

The raw material presented Thursday evening was sometimes banal and procedural (depositions, speeches). But at times (the violent and profane video montage, the eyewitness account of Capitol Police officer Caroline Edwards), it was compelling, terrifying, and immediate.

“We lost the line! We lost the line! viewers heard a Capitol Police officer scream as he was attacked by rioters. Shouted another, terror in his voice: “Officer down! And this chilling cry, in the background of a scene of chaos: “We are coming!”

Then the production values ​​took center stage – a perfectly timed voiceover of Trump saying, “They were peaceful people: and ‘love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it. “before the streak disappeared.

These are surely the moments that will be cannibalized on social media in the hours and days to come. Much of the political discourse takes place online these days, and what was once unmissable on TV is now on your phone, on demand. Content producers on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram create unforgettable moments. And if it was a produced TV show, it would be his little offspring.

“People will create their own fallout, seconds at a time,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Now…we’re in the age of developing stories as an interactive video game, where you take the coverage of that day and turn it into a meme and get 30 million viewers. I think that’s is how many people will experience these hearings.

So check your social media feeds, 2022 style, for the next phase of this drama – political, entertaining and unsettling all at once, and aggressively messy American.

“We looked at the pre-season. We have followed the season. And now it’s behind the scenes of “American Politics: The Sport,” said Western New England University historian John Baick. “I don’t think anyone remembers where he was when he watched the Capitol Investigations.”

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Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyte

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