Once upon a time, televised hearings could galvanize the nation, set the national agenda and even change the course of history. Think of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, which spelled the end of Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts for Communists, or the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
But that kind of impact by TV hearings is a thing of the past in our on-demand, fragmented, digital media age. It's one more thing that has changed for the worse, in part thanks to new media technology and the way it has helped mostly divide rather than unite us as promised.
That's what I was thinking as the first House select committee hearing on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol came to an end Tuesday. I had been deeply moved by the testimony of four police officers who battled the mob that stormed the Capitol and tried to halt the peaceful transfer of presidential power. Their courage, sense of duty and scars were on clear display. Their testimony as to what they experienced in the trenches on Jan. 6 and have felt since — particularly about some of the very members of Congress they risked their lives to protect who are now trying to rewrite history — still makes me angry as I write these words days later.
All four gave gripping testimony: U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell, U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn and District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Officers Michael Fanone and Daniel Hodges. Dunn's replay of the racial epithets and threats hurled against him by members of the mob should be enough to make any decent person publicly acknowledge the virulent racism of some members of the mob that former President Donald Trump characterized as "loving."
I will long remember Dunn's testimony, as well as that of Fanone, who slammed his hand down on the table as his voice broke detailing what he suffered and continues to endure.
"At the hospital, doctors told me that I had suffered a heart attack and I later was diagnosed with a concussion, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder," he testified.
"My children continue to deal with the trauma of nearly losing their dad that day," he continued. "What makes the struggle harder and more painful is to know so many of my fellow citizens, including so many of the people I put my life at risk to defend, are downplaying or outright denying what happened. I feel like I went to hell and back to protect them and the people in this room. But too many are telling me that hell doesn't exist. Or that hell wasn't actually that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful."
In an earlier time, when we were a four-network TV universe (CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS) and there were no mainstream channels like One America News Network, Newsmax or Fox News letting ideology rather than journalism drive their coverage, testimony like that might have moved the nation.
Such testimony coupled with the kind of shocking video of the insurrection that is now available would have at least changed some minds. That, by the way, is one of the good things about the digital media world in which we live: the vast array of video cameras documenting such events from myriad angles and points of view. But the problem is the way our patterns of media consumption ― and the ways in which we process such information ― have been changed by the technology.
To feel the full effect of the testimony Tuesday, I would argue that you had to watch it live and mostly straight through. You had to sit down in front of the screen and let it flow all over you, as the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael once wrote about experiencing a powerful film. If you want the full visceral, emotional experience, that's how you do it.
But who does that any more in our on-demand media world except journalists, politicos and politicians who have a professional stake in what's being said? Instead, most of us watch it sliced and diced into short bites of video or audio. People at work might not be able to watch the morning testimony live, but they can catch up during lunch this way.
But in making that choice, you are already subjecting yourself to the filter and point of view of others who are selecting what parts of the event are worthy of inclusion and how they are contextualized. Worse, the places we are most likely to go for those videos reside in the same ideological silos we do, so we are mostly getting only that which reinforces what we already believe.
The extremes of that process were most clearly displayed on right-wing outlets like Fox News Tuesday. That channel's prime-time coverage featured hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham ridiculing members of Congress who responded emotionally to the testimony as well as the law enforcement officers who shared their experiences and feelings.
On her show, Ingraham gave out mock performance awards. Fanone was given "best performance in an action role" for the testimony I quoted. Dunn was given the mock award for "blatant use of partisan politics when facts fail" for his testimony quoted above. Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff shared "best use of tears and dramatic pauses in a leading role" for their responses to the testimony.
On his show, Carlson laughed into the camera after playing a clip of Fanone saying, "I've been left with psychological trauma and emotional anxiety after having survived such a horrific event."
After showing a clip of Gonell, Carlson said, "When they lie and they don't stop lying, when they compare it to the Civil War or 9/11, they make us all very cynical and make us suspect that they are lying all the time," he said.
That's how you show a clip and then totally recontextualize it with a sneer or an "us" versus "them" statement on partisan cable TV.
Understanding why TV hearings no longer have the impact of old didn't come in a flash. I wrote about two hearings in recent years that I thought were going to change hearts, minds and maybe history: the hearing on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination in 2018 that featured testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of sexual assault; and the hearing with former Trump attorney Michael Cohen in 2019 that was chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings. I thought the painful testimony of Blasey Ford and the poetic closing remarks from Cummings, warning that one day "when we are dancing with the angels" we would be asked what we did to "keep our democracy intact," would resonate through the culture.
They did briefly. But nothing changed. Kavanaugh was confirmed to the high court, and Cohen's former client kept on lying and behaving transgressively. The attorney went to jail and is now free.
I'll be watching all the hearings about events of Jan. 6. I think they are important and necessary. But I am no longer expecting anything in Washington to change because of them. That's because of the change in us and how we now engage with media.