It’s bigger than the Army-McCarthy hearings. Bigger than Iran-Contra. Bigger even than Watergate. Virtually every broadcast, cable and streaming news outlet (except Fox News Channel, natch) will be pre-empting regularly scheduled programming Thursday night — in primetime, no less — to present a live feed of the House committee’s public inquiry into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
About the only way it could be any more dramatic would be if Tom Cruise kicked off the proceedings by landing an F-16 on the National Mall.
And yet… one has to wonder: Will America tune in?
Congressional hearings, even high-stakes ones upon which the future of democracy hinges, rarely make for great TV. They tend to be long, boring slogs filled with hours upon hours of papers being shuffled and bloviating politicians droning into microphones. Even the Watergate hearings, which were covered gavel-to-gavel by the three major major networks at the time for up to seven hours a day over the course of two weeks in the spring of 1973, were mostly a snooze.
Except, of course, when they weren’t.
What’s mostly remembered about Watergate — or any congressional hearing, for that matter — are the punchy soundbites. Sen. Sam Ervin wondering: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” White House counsel John Dean testifying about how he told Richard Nixon that a “cancer was growing on the presidency.” Same with Iran-Contra: The only moments that continue to reverberate from that hearing, 35 years later, are National Security Council staffer Oliver North looking like a live-action GI Joe doll while being sworn in and his lawyer, Brandan Sullivan, objecting to his client’s questioning by uttering the immortal words, “I am not a potted plant.”
Occasionally, a line emerges from a congressional hearing that is so powerful, it actually becomes a pivot point in history. In 1954, attorney Joseph Welch knocked Sen. Joseph McCarthy back on his heels by asking aloud what much of the country must have been wondering throughout the Red Scare seeking to root out supposed Communists in places of power: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no decency?”
In old-timey days, these potent little clips would be scooped up by the national media and diced into segments for the networks’ evening news. You remember the evening news. Thirty-minute broadcasts, usually around diner time, anchored by guys in chunky eyewear and fuzzy mustaches with names like Walter and Frank, that were watched by as many as 30 million viewers a night.
For Americans who didn’t scrutinize Watergate or the other hearings as they happened in real time on TV — and even for the millions who actually did cling to every word — the evening news miniaturized the proceedings into digestible, bite-sized portions, giving them context, perspective and meaning. The anchors and their teams found the newsy bits and spoon-fed them to the American public, which is how, over many weeks or months, public opinion was forged.
We obviously don’t live in that sort of world anymore. These days, the evening news is little more than a vestigial appendage of a prehistoric media age (“CBS Evening News,” Walter Cronkite’s old home, now averages about 5 million viewers a night). Instead, we’ve got a splintered populace feeding off of 24-hour cable news channels, each hewing to competing ideological lines — or, in Fox News’ case, often gamboling off into fact-free fantasy land. (In a 2020 ruling to dismiss a slander lawsuit brought against Tucker Carlson, a federal judge declared that the “‘general tenor’ of the show should inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’” but is instead “engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’”)
And we’ve got Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all the other social media outlets, where, according to a 2021 Pew study, about half of America now gets its news. Today, our great republic’s citizenry is largely informed by meme, or by folks like Carlson, both of which deliver the polar opposite of context, perspective and meaning.
The Democrats (and two lonely Republicans) on the House committee organizing the hearings are certainly aware of what they’re up against. They’ve tapped former ABC News president James Goldston — who once ran that network’s “Good Morning America” and “Nightline” — to help tailor the events for more modern times in a series of primetime presentations expected to run through June (with a final, pre-midterm-election hearing in September). They’re promising a more narratively structured sort of hearing, teasing unseen footage of the attack as well as potentially shocking new revelations about former President Donald Trump’s role in the insurrection.
“We expect it to not look at all like a traditional congressional hearing,” CBS News congressional correspondent Scott MacFarlane told TheWrap’s Brandon Katz. “Everything about the hearing Thursday night is unprecedented. This is the largest criminal investigation in American history and the committee is doing the only investigation of its kind in American history.”
Will that be enough to lure America away from Disney’s new “Obi-wan Kenobi” series or Netflix’s latest season of “Stranger Things”? Will the era-defining gravity of what is about to transpire under the Capitol dome, broadcast and streamed across the dial, grab the public by the lapels and force it to pay attention?
One can only hope. But just in case, maybe Tom Cruise should fire up his engines.