BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | AUG 9, 2022
The special committee probing the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol has slowed for the summer and so has the avalanche of media coverage that smothered the news cycle for months.
The coverage covered everything from the chilling stampede into the Capitol and the violence that ensued to the behind-the-scenes evidence of President Donald Trump’s culpability to the trivial but titillating tales of you-can’t-make-this-up behavior.
The protestors have been portrayed as wild-eyed insurrectionists. However, a good many of those who gathered in DC that day were not. To the contrary, according to a study by Harvard University, the vast majority were motivated by their loyalty to Trump and their misguided belief in the fraudulence of the 2020 elections.
But make no mistake about it, there was a hard core of hundreds of true insurrectionists stirring up rebellion, trying to stop a constitutional process of election certification, and worst of all, threatening Vice President Mike Pence and the members of Congress trapped inside the building. If their actions didn’t fit neatly into the Trump apologists’ legal definition of ‘insurrection’, so be it; their actions conveyed nothing less. It was a despicable spectacle; a black mark on the nation’s history.
What I found out of sync and disconcerting about the J6 episodic journey was the way the hearings were staged and their laser-focus on a ‘Trump-should-be-jailed-message’ and little more. That was how the establishment media drove that message, too, in virtual lockstep with the committee.
Also disconcerting was the blatant manner in which the proceedings further diminished what is left of the integrity of the House and the precedents and procedures that have kept some semblance of order and comity in the legislative process for two centuries.
The proceedings, in fact, weren’t congressional hearings at all. They were the aftermath of a badly bungled attempt to investigate what happened and why on January 6. There was no minority participation. There was no presentation of opposing views, rebuttals, or cross-examination of witnesses. There were no opposing witnesses. There probably will be no minority views in the final report.
The members of the Committee appeared to be spoon fed professionally-crafted 60 Minutes-style scripts that delivered the disciplined and tightly-controlled messages woven throughout the broadcasts. The Committee members even used teleprompters to ensure they stayed on message. It was embarrassing to watch their eyes dart across their teleprompter screens.
It’s easy to argue that a lot of committee hearings are orchestrated in a way that unfairly restricts the minority’s participation, regardless of party, and creates desired perceptions. Some are staged to play to the cameras and lack the kind of substance that contributes to legislative or public enlightenment.
But these episodes went beyond how Members take advantage of the system. The J6 hearings were done totally outside the normal committee process. They were not just an abuse of the process but a complete abandonment of it for partisan purposes, noted by their timing, which has them building right up to the doorstep of the 2022 midterm elections.
They were impeccably produced and choreographed, compelling, at some times mesmerizing, political theater worthy of the big screen. The performances deserve a couple of Emmys, one for best mini-series and another for best producer.
The producer would be James Goldston, the 53-year-old Brit and newly-minted American citizen who until a year ago was President of ABC News. Goldston was recruited to the Select Committee, presumably by Speaker Pelosi, to orchestrate what New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters described as “TV-ready segments for all its public hearings…”
Goldston did just that. He captured audiences in seven figures over the months, fortified by a constant flow of calculated leaks from the Committee, which the media simply cut and pasted.
And that folds into another problem ignored in the coverage and the commentary, which for the most part were indistinguishable.
The non-hearings were ostensibly intended to get to the bottom of the January 6 attack. That would have been worth it, but we are still not much further along in being able to navigate the social and political river rapids that carried us to the crest of the waterfall in 2020 and 2021.
We have lived through years of slowly but mercilessly escalating violence, mayhem, divisiveness, polarization, and the abandonment of our values, our belief structure, and our humanity.
The death and destruction that crossed the US in 2020 and the violence and anger that finally erupted on January 6th have deeper roots and more profound meaning than has been depicted by the Committee. The American people, the press, and our political leaders need to face up to the underlying causes and how to diminish them; to focus more on what is eating away at the fabric of our society and the structure of our politics and governance, and much less on who to blame, or how to divert blame from ourselves.
The J6 Committee could have and should have contributed something positive to our knowledge of that history and potential cures for the cancer metastasizing through the body politic. Current congressional leaders, shackled by their extremists and driven by partisan gains and losses, simply cannot make that happen.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.