Wednesday, November 30

A January 6th Spectacle Won’t Save Democracy


Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler – CC BY 2.0

The televised hearings on the events of January 6, 2021 (January 6th) on the alleged insurrection at the Capitol after the 2020 election illustrates the sclerotic state of American politics and news media. It occurs at a time when democracies are weakening and disappearing. Regardless of one’s party affiliation or ideology, questions about a violent attempt to disrupt or ignore the democratic process are as serious as they are consequential. On the surface, the hearing is a powerful example of democracy in action, but what happened on January 6th and what it means for democracy is hindered by the establishment news media and political classes’ fixation on Donald Trump.  Indeed, they are addicted to the benefits of focusing on Trump all the time – so is Trump himself. Meanwhile, the public remains in the unenviable position of being inundated with propaganda while lacking a background in critical media literacy education.

Americans are not media literate. For the most part, their schools do not mandate critical media literacy education. Writers have long warned that having a media illiterate citizenry threatens a democracy’s viability because voters are unable to discern fact from fiction, entertainment from reality. Indeed, numerous scholars and journalists have argued that it was these conditions that enabled Trump to become president of the United States. A long time media figure and reality television personality, Trump engaged in delivering sensationalistic content that the news media could not avoid. For four years, the news media enjoyed a massive increase in their audience size for covering every aspect of Trump’s life.  Some later issued a mea culpa, but all suffered from a huge reduction of their audience once Trump’s presidency concluded by nearly half in some cases.

The Democratic Party engaged in what was known as a pied piper strategy to make Trump the 2016 nominee because they thought he was the best opponent to ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory. As evidenced by the 2020 election, antipathy for Trump drives Democratic Party voter participation like abortion and immigration animate Republicans. That Democrats rely on the “we’re not Trump” strategy has them facing dismal prospects for 2022 voter participation.

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The June 9, 2022 hearing is a unique opportunity for the news media and Democratic Party to retain some of the audience and voters they lost during the Trump presidency. Following the events of January 6th – where a pro-Trump crowd overpowered Capitol Police and made their way into the U.S. Capital that would ultimately lead to the death of seven people – the Democratic Party has debated and investigated who was responsible for these horrific events as a main focus, which some argue comes at the expense of key issues about which voters are more concerned.

The investigation in the House of Representatives– which the Democratic Party currently controls – presented its case to the American public June 9th on primetime television. They promised a compelling case based on never before seen evidence that Trump played a pivotal role in the deadly events at the Capitol on January 6th. Liberal audiences hoped it would not be a repeat of Robert Mueller’s investigation, which turned out to be a 21st century version of Geraldo Rivera’s televised opening of Al Capone’s vault, only to find it empty.

Presumably, to draw a larger audience, the Democrats chose a primetime slot for the hearing. They hired former ABC News President James Goldston to produce the hearings and transform them into a media spectacle. MSNBC and CNN broadcast the hearing uninterrupted. The Democratic Party hyped the hearing proclaiming “It’ll change history,” as Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger put it. California Representative Adam Schiff promised to show a “multipronged effort to overturn a presidential election.” For its part, CNN bannered the event “Attack on Democracy: The January 6th Hearing.”

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Mimicking a news anchor person, investigators at the hearing sat behind their desks making claims and playing videos of archive footage, relevant testimony from Trump officials, and highly produced and emotionally powerful footage of events at the Capitol. Continuing to act as a news anchor, Rep. Bennie Thompson created a big historical precedent for the hearing to fulfill. He quoted Abraham Lincoln and John Winthrop as he argued that the events of January 6th were as consequential as the Civil War, War of 1812, the 9/11 attacks, and investigations into the Ku Klux Klan. Representative Lynn Cheney– A Republican despised by Trump supporters for voting to impeachTrump– was chosen to make the case that viewers would be wise to stay tuned. She outlined what was coming in the days ahead promising that the investigators would prove that Trump had colluded with right wing groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers before January 6th.  After a short break, the investigators returned to interview witnesses in a traditional congressional hearing format.

Watching CNN and MSNBC, it was difficult to tell where the Democratic Party talking points ended and journalism began. Acting as stenographers for those in power, the banner on the screen and the talking heads rehashed what the lawmakers said and offered almost no critique or critical questions. For example, they did not question why this is not an investigation into the failures of the Capitol Police. Worse, Democratic Party apparatchiks and supporting organizations aired commercials aimed at getting donations and votes from viewers. Fox News Channel, acting in the favor of Republicans, chose not to cover the hearing. Instead they lampooned the validity and purpose of the hearing, downplaying that democracy was threatened on January 6th. Interestingly, less than five minutes after the hearing adjourned for the evening, they claimed– without providing evidence– that the hearing was a ratings “flop.”

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The problems with American democracy are real and the threat of civil war is not one to take lightly. The case by investigators was powerful, but it will make little difference if the U.S. does not address the systemic problems that threaten democracy. First and foremost, the public must be able to think critically about everything, especially media. This necessitates a national effort to implement critical media literacy education, where students are taught how to think not what to think. For their part, the news media and politicians need to give citizens a reason to have faith in journalists and the government.  . Investigators’ revelations will be meaningless if people do not have faith in the political process and news media. That necessitates systemic changes to governance and journalism. CNN and MSNBC’s broadcast will have almost no impact if it only reaches supporters of the Democratic Party. News media outlets needs to expand their audience by offering the public a diversity of views from investigative journalists who seek to “comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.” Instead of asking party members, and society in general, to vote blue no matter who, the Democratic Party needs to solidify human rights and improve people’s material conditions. They need to take legal action against governmental grifting, especially when it comes from “their side.” These changes represent a more viable strategy for saving democracy than a media spectacle aimed at preaching to the choir.

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