On Thursday night, most major TV networks, cable news stations and NPR will broadcast live from Capitol Hill as the gavel falls at 7 p.m. CT to start hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The insurrection on that day was of course unprecedented, but so are the hearings being presented to the American people in prime time.
Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas-El Paso, spoke with Texas Standard to explain what we can expect from the hearings. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Before we get to the upcoming hearing, I’m trying to think of other times in history we’ve seen congressional hearings in prime time. You know, we’re talking about that highly prized, very valuable 8 to 10 p.m. slot. Can you recall any?
Richard Pineda: No. I mean, I think this is unprecedented. This would be the time the president gets for the State of the Union or if there’s a message of national importance. But I think this is the first time that we’ve seen a hearing elevated from the morning slot to really, as you pointed out, Thursday primetime, one of the most expensive spots over the course of a broadcast week.
A lot has been made of a former TV news executive from ABC, I believe, brought in to help produce these hearings. How much of this is an effort to get real answers as opposed to sort of generating a TV spectacle that will galvanize the American people in some way?
Well, when you and I talk, I use the phrase ‘political theater’ quite a bit. But I mean, this probably is the best example of that. I think the Democrats are looking for a win. But I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure how they’re going to be able to pull this off.
I think the timing is significant, to be sure. But remember, the context has changed radically; this isn’t the only issue on Americans’ plates. We just had the Buffalo shooting; we had the Uvalde shooting. I mean, I think people are concerned about January 6th, but it’s going to be a very difficult needle to thread for Democrats to walk away from this, especially tonight, and be able to say, ‘look, we are making headway and we’re going to change the nature of how democracy is going to be upheld in this country.’
And I think they’re setting themselves up with a really risky load to carry. I think the production – the idea that this isn’t just going to be a straightforward hearing; we’re apparently going to watch video shot by a documentarian – I think this is fraught with risk for the Democrats.
You mentioned Uvalde – how likely is it that the Jan. 6 hearings could pull attention away from other current issues?
I think there’s definitely a risk of that. I think the the other question, and I think this is really the burden the Democrats have, is an end game. So at this point, the Department of Justice has acted on the prosecution of a number of responsible parties. I think a lot of what’s going to happen starting tonight is going to be an attempt to point to former President Trump’s culpability. I’m not sure how far that gets the Democrats. I don’t think that’s going to translate into any midterm value. And I think even if there is a smoking gun – which I’m not sure at this point that there is – I don’t know exactly how they intend to hold the former president accountable.
And so that’s the other thing, is that starting tonight, while I do think this is important and there’s a certain level of catharsis to have these conversations, I’m not entirely sure what the end game is. Hopefully we’ll see that articulated in the opening statements by the chair and vice chair. But I’m very hesitant to predict that this is going to be a positive turn for the Democrats.
It has been a year and a half, and I think that there’s been some conversation that perhaps Americans have moved on. Is it possible that we could see tonight, though, a possible revelation that could change opinion and in some way galvanize the country?
I think that the bigger question is not going to be resolved by a televised hearing, which is, you know, do you allow false information and false narratives about elections being stolen to dominate news cycles? And I don’t know that there’s a smoking gun tonight that’s going to change that trajectory.
If you think about it, the way that we gauge effectiveness for this hearing is essentially the same way we gauge the effectiveness of an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” We’re going to look at ratings, and we’re going to say, ‘this is how many people watched.’ And, you know, that’s going to be our sort of tell tale as to whether or not there was impact in these hearings. And if we’re worried about democracy, my guess is that means the ship has sailed.