A high-tech illustration of a gavel

Much attention has been rightly paid to the congressional hearings into events before, during and after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. By any account, it qualifies as a big deal. Perhaps one of the biggest in American history, with unprecedented implications for democracy’s future.

But you don’t have to be a historian or civics geek to be gripped by this social-studies drama. All you have to do is appreciate great storytelling. Indeed, if there is any true surprise coming out of the hearings, it might be the shaping of the hearings themselves. No doubt the months of behind-the-scenes work has been a technical, legal and investigative slog. The eight public hearings, by contrast, have been presented as a powerful, keenly crafted narrative.

As an example, James Poniewozik, chief TV critic for The New York Times, is as much part of the coverage as the legal and political reporters. In a June 10 piece, he called the hearings a “true-crime serial” that was “fighting for attention in a cacophonous media environment.” He noted that the committee engaged a veteran television news producer to help guide the hearings and make them watchable prime-time events:

This was not simply a dutiful time capsule for the historical archives. This was TV meant to break through, and to matter, now.

In his critique of the first public hearing, Poniewozik mentioned its dramatic opening or “curtain raiser,” its purposeful point-of-view, its expansive cast, episodic structure and serial arc. That’s not the usual fare of congressional hearings, but the language of story. Then, on June 28, he wrote:

The Jan. 6 committee’s hearings have a lot in common with scripted TV mini-series: narrative, editing — even surprise reveals, as when the committee sprang a bonus episode…

The New York Times isn’t the only news organization noting the designed nature of the public hearings. Most critiques focus on the why of that design: An undeniable and unapologetic attempt to grab and hold the public’s attention and, by extension, to reframe the political debate.

Then the Associated Press went further. Rather than just a recap of the content of the hearings and comments about why they are being shaped as they are, David Bauder, with Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro, dove into the specifics of how that story is being told. They essentially annotated the narrative craft at work in production and presentation of the committee’s investigation. The headline on their June 27 story: No Reruns.

Intrigued, we annotated the AP annotation as a way to emphasize the elements of story craft that can be learned from studying the congressional hearings. But first, in response to the inevitable criticisms and discomfort that will be prompted by such a conscious sharing of narrative — especially a narrative claiming to present both accuracy and truth — let’s go back to Poniewozik’s June 10 analysis:

I know that some readers are offended by the mere use of “narrative” or “story” to describe crucial information about an attack on democracy. But these are no insults; story structure is not just for Marvel movies. Narrative is what gives a deluge of information form and pattern. Storytelling is a tool for engagement, not just distraction.

ANNOTATION: Passages of the AP story have been put in bold for emphasis. Storyboard’s elaborations are in red.

No reruns: Committee tries new approach to break through


June 27, 2022

NEW YORK (AP) — As television programming goes, expectations were widespread that the Jan. 6 committee hearings would essentially be reruns. Instead, they have been much more.

The five sessions have revealed a storyteller’s eye, with focus, clarity, an understanding of how news is digested in modern media, and strong character development — even if former President Donald Trump’s allies suggest there aren’t enough actors. Classic and helpful nut graf. I’m getting the full overview of what’s to come. For those who think that’s a dangerous giveaway to the reader, consider this: Shakespeare gave away the core of “Romeo and Juliet” in the opening monologue. The real question being addressed here is in the expansion and elaboration on the heart of the story.

After initially saying the hearings would pause for a break until next month, the Jan. 6 committee on Monday announced a surprise session will be held Tuesday to present new evidence.

As seen during Trump’s impeachments, modern congressional hearings tend to produce more heat than light. That was part of why the Jan. 6 committee faced low expectations, along with the sense — 18 months after the insurrection, an event that played out on live television — that there may be little new to learn. This is an extension of the nut, getting at the why, or relevance, of the story.

House Republican Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to participate gave the committee a gift, the chance to craft hearings as a unicorn of sorts in today’s political age.

The hearings are concise, no more than 2 ½ hours, each day with a specific theme. It goes like this: First, viewers are told at the outset what they’re going to hear. Then they hear it. Then they are told at the end what they just heard. Usually there’s a preview of what’s next — a trick that likely reflects the advice of James Goldston, a former ABC News producer hired as a consultant. A bit of historic context, but then back to story craft: Theme of the hearings, reinforcement of theme, then a foreshadow of what’s to come. This starts to show the build of the hearings as a serial narrative that pulls readers from one session to the next and builds as it goes forward.

Keeping the presentations understandable with short, simple bursts of information reflects lessons learned from the impeachment, said Norm Eisen, a former lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee who worked on those hearings and is now at the Brookings Institution. While this refers primarily to modern TV-watching audiences, the lessons are valid for all journalists: Understandable information provided in manageable chunks. In other words, organize the material for maximum understanding.

“It’s just focused on the witnesses and the evidence,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a member of the panel who also led the second Trump impeachment hearings. “We know we have a precious opportunity to get this information to the American people, and we don’t want to waste a minute of it.”

The committee uses clips from taped testimony like a journalist would include quotes in a story. Questioning of live witnesses doesn’t wander. Quotes need to be selected to verify, deepen or add eye-witness credibility and emotion to the information being laid out. They are for emphasis rather than process. And they need to be clear within the context that sets them upee.

Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Republican Vice Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., question witnesses alongside one other member who is in charge of each hearing.

The result is a rare sight in Congress: lawmakers staying silent.

“I’m surprised by the discipline involved in doing this effectively, because politicians love to grandstand,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a specialist in political communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “And if people were grandstanding, it wouldn’t work.”

As a result, sound bites that emerge from each hearing and are repeated online and in news reports — the way many Americans learn about these sessions — consistently reflect the narrative the committee is trying to advance, Jamieson said. Sound bites have always been more the province of broadcast than print. But identifying the pithy quote — whether spoken or in print — means paying attention to what helps tell the story and is memorable.

Each day’s hearing fits the overall theme — that the plot to nullify the 2020 election was multi-faceted, with the events of Jan. 6, 2021, only one part, and that many of the people surrounding Trump didn’t believe his claims of election fraud. The producers of the public hearings understand the narrative wisdom of thinking beyond an information dump to focus on the meaning of the information.

Witness testimony gains power because it mostly comes from Republicans, Trump’s former aides and allies, Jamieson said. It’s one thing to have Schiff declare Trump’s rigged election claims were bull, quite another to have it come from the former president’s attorney general, with an Ivanka Trump endorsement.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, who defied Trump’s pleas not to certify the election, received the type of praise he’d never expect from a committee led by Democrats.

The most pointed political messages come from Cheney, who has spoken directly to Republican Trump supporters even as she knows many are furious with her.

“It can be difficult to accept that President Trump abused your trust, that he deceived you,” she said at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing. “Many will invent excuses to ignore that fact. But that is a fact. I wish it weren’t true. But it is.”

The hearings also command the attention of journalists by consistently offering something new or unexamined, such as Thursday’s revelation of congressmen who pleaded for presidential pardons, or the extent of Trump’s fundraising off his false claims of fraud. While stories need to be cohesive and coherent, with a clear focus, they also need to move forward. Bonus if they can offer relevant surprises, or “gold coins,” along the way.

“Things really couldn’t have gone much better from the committee’s point of view,” said veteran television producer Chris Whipple, author of a forthcoming book on the first year of the Biden administration. “The production has been fine, but it really has been a masterpiece of casting.”

Citing the creator of “The West Wing,” Whipple added: “Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have dreamed up a character like Rusty Bowers,” the Republican Arizona House speaker who resisted Trump’s request to appoint false electors.

The committee has also created villains like John Eastman, architect of the effort to nullify the election, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, diminishing Giuliani by reports that he was intoxicated on election night.

The testimony of Georgia elections worker Wandrea “Shaye” Moss put a face on common Americans who were affected by false accusations of voter fraud. One of the most powerful elements of narrative is a credible, relatable character. Such people become the micro who represent the macro, and reveal how it plays out in daily life. They help distant events feel relevant and abstract issues feel intimate. It is crucial, when identifying those people for nonfiction stories that they are not romanticized, but reported and presented fully and fairly.

Even an anchor on the frequently Trump-friendly Fox News Channel, Neil Cavuto, said after the hearing where Moss was featured that “this just seems to make Donald Trump look awful.”

Trump seems to have sensed it. He criticized McCarthy, who pulled all of his Republican appointees off the Jan. 6 committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of them. At the very least, having Trump allies on the panel would have hurt the committee’s ability to control its message, Jamieson said.

Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog Media Research Center said he objects to the media portraying the commission’s work as bipartisan when the only two Republicans — Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger — are longtime Trump critics.

“The fact that this is not a balanced commission is really a shame,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University professor and Fox News analyst. “Having someone there to ask probing questions, rather than scripted questions, I think would have added greater authority and power to this hearing.”

Given the evidence presented, Whipple wondered how effective additional Republicans would have been.

“I’m not sure it would have helped them one iota,” he said, “and it might have hurt them.”


Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

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