"It's easy to avoid the news": the J6 committee tries to break through our fractured media ecosystem
As historian Julian Zelizer explains, the Watergate era it isn't.
The January 6 committee has carefully laid out former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. They’ve been a vital part of the effort to put what occurred in the historical record and educate voters who will likely see Trump on a ballot again in the not-too-distant future.
Because these hearings are so important, it’s crucial that the committee is able to reach as many Americans as possible. But that’s complicated by the fact that our media ecosystem is so fractured.
When the committee was formed, it’s clear it knew it had a big job on its hands. It not only had to complete an extremely complex investigation — it had to get its findings to the American people. At a time when the American people get their information from such disparate sources, that’s not an easy job.
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, tells me that we’ve never seen hearings quite like these. The biggest reason, of course, is because an American president has never tried to lead an insurrection against their own government. But there have been some similar hearings. The obvious comparison would be the Watergate hearings in the early 1970s, and Zelizer says the Iran-Contra hearings are another good parallel. Those hearings focused on the Reagan administration’s involvement in the secret sale of weapons to Iran, which helped fund right-wing rebel groups in Nicaragua. Zelizer says hearings focusing on the conduct of the president are as big as it gets.
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“The major thing [committees] do is gather information and give that information to the electorate. They give us a fuller picture — a better understanding of things that have gone wrong, corruption, abuse of power,” Zelizer says. “When the committees are working, that’s really their main responsibility. What happens with that is a different issue.”
“People are watching bits and pieces”
Beyond the conduct involved, one of the major differences between the January 6 hearings and major hearings of the past is how we consume media. Many have noted that the January 6 hearings have been slickly produced, and Zelizer says the committee seems to understand the media environment it’s operating in. In an age where people often get their news from many different sources — if they follow the news at all — he says the committee needs to consider that as it presents its findings.
“It’s not an era of national networks, which was still the case through the 1980s. It’s a fragmented media environment. People are watching bits and pieces rather than the whole hearing. I’m sure a lot of people are seeing clips on social media,” Zelizer says. “In 1973, if you turned on the TV at a certain hour there were moments when this is all you could watch. Today, even if you want to watch something, the choices are endless and it’s easy to avoid the news.”
If the committee wants to effectively educate the public on what occurred on January 6, it needs to reach as much of the public as possible. Even if MSNBC and CNN are airing every hearing live, a lot of people aren’t watching those networks, so it’s important to make sure digestible clips of these hearings are making it on social media where they can be shared and discussed.
“The way they're doing it has an eye toward the media environment today. It’s produced with the idea of how will viewers absorb the information and making it more accessible,” Zelizer says.
Roughly three out of four Americans watched at least part of the Watergate hearings when they were taking place in the early 1970s. Around 20 million television viewers watched the first January 6 hearing, but PBS’ YouTube video of that same hearing has over 3 million views, and clips of the hearing were all over social media on the day that it happened. It’s clearly a much different media environment.
Beyond the issue of getting views on social media, there’s also the fact that even mainstream media sources are fractured. Fox News didn’t exist in the 1970s or 80s, and many have argued (including Fox News!) that Nixon might not have resigned if he had had such a potent propaganda network defending his every action.
The network, which has only aired some of the hearings, has mostly downplayed them. It’s the most-watched network on television, so that matters.
That being said, it seems the committee is still reaching some Republicans.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll from July 21 found that 52 percent of Republicans have been exposed to some kind of coverage of the hearings. Furthermore, the poll found the number of Republicans who think the 2020 election was stolen from Trump has decreased by 12 points (now 55 percent) since the beginning of June, and the number of Republicans who disagree with the statement that Trump should not run for president again has decreased by 7 points (now 58 percent).
Why this matters
The hearings are not only important for the historical record or to show people what Trump did, but to help prevent something like this from happening again. After all, efforts to subvert our electoral process have only increased since January 6.
“Part of the point is all of this can happen again. In some ways, it could happen more easily because of how the GOP has focused in on the process — on the state races for election officials,” Zelizer says. “That magnifies it even more. It’s not just about Trump. It’s about the instabilities of the election system.”
Election deniers are running to become poll workers, secretaries of state, governors and more. With people who are trying to subvert the electoral process in these positions of power, the chance that a future effort to overturn an election would be successful increases.
Zelizer says he’s been watching the hearings closely, and he says they show that American democracy is truly in danger. It’s been in danger before — we had a Civil War after all —but he doesn’t find past examples of the fragility of our democracy to be any kind of comfort.
The hearings aren’t over yet and could run past the midterms, so there’s clearly still a lot more to come. There will surely be more explosive revelations, and they will show us how close we came to the brink of American democracy’s collapse. The more people the January 6 committee is able to reach with this crucial information, the more likely we’ll be able to prevent something like this from happening again. The committee will have to continue to work to overcome the media fragmentation we face today to accomplish that goal.
That’s it for this week!
Aaron will be back with more Monday. Have a great weekend.