Jan. 6 panel seeks to break through with prime-time programming

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is preparing for a crucial week as it prepares to finally share with the public the fruits of its months-long investigation into the riot in prime time on Thursday. 

The 8 p.m. hearing kicking off a series of meetings shows the committee is eager to reach a broad segment of Americans and relay the extent to which democracy itself was at stake that day. 

“The goal here is to construct this narrative,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies with Brookings.  

“What they want to do is go through the countless depositions that they've taken and other evidence that they gathered and figure out a way to try and convey a story to the public.” 

The challenge is making a captivating case for a wide audience, particularly those who feel they already know what happened that day or who are ready to move on from the attack. 

According to polling from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the country is nearly evenly divided on how much it wants to reflect on the day. 

While 52 percent said it’s important to learn more about what happened, 48 percent said it was “time to move on.” The divide is almost entirely partisan. 

“I do think that the committee will have difficulties in communicating messages because of the kind of segregated information environment in which a lot of the American public exists,” Ryan Goodman, co-director of the Reiss Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law, told The Hill. 

“That said, I do think the visual of a solemn public hearing and live testimony plus, in all likelihood video material, could focus attention in a way [for] the members of the American public are otherwise not thinking about these issues.” 

Putting the hearing in prime-time shows the committee doesn’t want to just reach those who already view the attack as a grievous assault on democracy. It wants to reach independents and even conservatives who have heard GOP leaders brand the panel as a partisan witch hunt. 

Jesse Rhodes, a political science professor who helped craft the UMass poll, said even with the sharp partisan divide, there are those who don’t have strong feelings about the attack. 

“We're finding in the poll that about 19 percent of people are purely independent. And then there's another 9 percent who lean Democratic and another 8 percent lean Republican. So there is a little bit of mushiness in the middle. And those people potentially can be shifted,” he said, noting that just one-third of Americans strongly identify as conservative. 

“If there really is damning evidence of long-term planning, involvement in collusion by the president or his top advisers … that does have the potential to move some people.” 

Rhodes and others have warned the committee must be careful in how it frames such messaging. 

“I think the most important [thing] might be this is not perceived as a Trump versus Biden frame, which the first impeachment hearing pretty much was, but rather it imparts a Trump versus Pence framework. I think that there are many people that are concerned about the direct threat to Mike Pence that occurred on Jan. 6,” Goodman said.  

“I think that captures attention in a very different way. It’s not as political or partisan.” 

There are signs the committee could be leaning in that direction. Multiple outlets reported the panel has been in discussions about inviting Pence’s legal advisers and chief of staff to testify. 

“As soon as this is perceived as or appears to be a strictly partisan affair and an attack on the Republican Party as an institution, then you're going to get a lot of resistance or skepticism,” Rhodes said. 

“To the degree that the messages can be about upholding and maintaining institutions and values that benefit people, regardless of party, the more you will get at least a willingness to hear some of these concerns.” 

The panel’s makeup could help it.  

Republicans in the House objected during the two committee impeachment proceedings on Trump, but the two Republicans on the Jan. 6 panel agree with its objectives.

“Each hearing is going to be different than I think a lot of what we're used to seeing because everyone is rowing in the same direction. So you have the Democrats and you have [Rep. Liz] Cheney [R-Wyo.] and [Rep. Adam] Kinzinger [R-Ill.], so the committee is bipartisan, but they are all in pursuit of a shared goal in a way that just is not true of other recent high profile investigations, whether it be the Trump impeachment or Benghazi,” Reynolds said. 

“That’s going to make for a serious exposition of the facts that's just going to feel different than what we’ve gotten used to.”    

Goodman said the absence of Republicans opposed to the committee’s mission will not just change the tone but even the way in which information is presented. 

“I do not think that the hearings are going to be anything like the circus that has existed in hearings — and the impeachment hearings — in that past in which some members of Congress were simply playing to kind of a right-wing media. And so this will be a more solemn hearing which is going to be truth seeking, [that’s] the way in which I see it. And I don't think that hearings are going to be a source of disinformation. I think they're going to be a source of information,” he said. 

The committee has not yet announced who will testify at the first hearing, but it has pledged to release never before seen footage from Jan. 6. 

“The committee will present previously unseen material documenting January 6th, receive witness testimony, preview additional hearings, and provide the American people a summary of its findings about the coordinated, multi-step effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and prevent the transfer of power,” it said in a Thursday statement. 

It’s not clear what type of footage the committee plans to present at the hearing. 

While in the past it’s relied on visceral imagery — including an officer being smashed by rioters in a doorway and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) barely escaping as the mob closed in on the Senate chamber — even new footage of the attack may seem repetitive to those who watched it unfold live on television. 

But Goodman said video recordings from some of the committee’s more than 1,000 depositions could be captivating for the public. 

Rhodes also said new information will be key, especially to break through in an unusually busy summer news cycle. 

“It can be a challenge to get people to refocus on events that occurred in the past, especially when there's going to be a lot of elite disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about what happened and who was involved in with what culpability,” he said. “I think that's a real challenge even though it sounds like the committee is going to have a lot of really juicy and damning information to share.”  

“They may be able to bring attention especially if they come out with some really shocking new revelations but it is going to be a challenge to break through everything that's going on right now.”