The visceral testimony of four police officers who held the line against pro-Trump insurrectionists on Jan. 6 dominated mainstream coverage of the first hearing of the select committee to investigate the Capitol attack. As it should be.
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the men and women in uniform who were vastly outnumbered during the Jan. 6 attack and yet still managed to keep any lawmakers from being gravely wounded or worse.
But the coverage of the hearing and the violence those officers experienced at the hands of people sent to the Capitol by Donald Trump could have unfolded very differently if Republican flamethrowers like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio had been seated on the committee.
Had Jordan been there, mainstream outlets surely would have felt obligated to include his disinformation rants in their reporting on the hearing. Indeed, that's how all congressional hearings have been covered over the past decade, even as the House GOP caucus—and the Republican Party, more generally—radicalized to the point of absurdity. In the past five years, that has meant an infuriating amount of news coverage about serious proceedings on everything from impeaching Trump to election security has been hijacked by profoundly cynical, unserious Trump bootlickers like Jordan. Their presence and the time devoted to it has not only impeded the ability of Congress to govern, it has corroded the public's understanding of our democracy from within.
But on Tuesday—precisely because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat Jordan—the hearing focused on the officers and a bipartisan group of lawmakers who were genuinely interested in what they endured, their insights, and their desires for the investigation moving forward.
Even some right-wing outlets were forced to carry a dose of reality to their viewers because they were deprived of centering their coverage on the performative outrage of GOP lawmakers seeking to score political points. Predictably, One America News did an amateurish hatchet job on the hearing. But CNN's media critic Brian Stelter writes:
It stood in stark contrast to Fox News and Newsmax, two other right-wing channels that actually showed the hearing while police officers described fearing for their lives when a pro-Trump mob overwhelmed law enforcement at the Capitol on January 6.
The Fox/Newsmax hearing coverage was sandwiched between obligatory GOP objections, but as Stelter noted, "The mere act of carrying the police testimony at all is noteworthy because right-wing media has so thoroughly downplayed the crimes of that day."
A little fact-based journalism seeping into the right-wing airwaves is a real feat these days. But it wasn't made possible by the journalists—it was a function of the way Speaker Pelosi structured the committee. Depriving spots to Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana—who both voted against election certification and would have solely dedicated themselves to impeding the probe—allowed a sincere attempt at fact-based democratic governance to proceed, and the coverage followed.
Sure, Republicans staged their own sad little press conferences surrounding the hearing, but they received separate articles that allowed serious reporters to more thoroughly fact check and debunk their claims. But paramount is the fact that coverage of those claims didn't infect the coverage of democracy at work.
And democracy at work is the ultimate point. For the better part of a decade, Washington Republicans have been proving they have no interest in actual governance. They have broken norms, like depriving a Democratic president of a Supreme Court appointment for roughly a year. They have almost universally failed at legislating. Even with unified control of Washington, they only managed to pass one major bill—and it was entirely along partisan lines. And when they controlled both the White House and the Senate, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell left it to Speaker Pelosi to do all the negotiating with the Trump administration on COVID relief and keeping the government's lights on (which is actually critical to successful governance).
But perhaps most importantly, Republicans have stopped caring about any adherence to the truth, opting instead to feed their voters so much garbage that they can't see beyond the mountain of sludge in front of them. In fact, Republicans' clear goal now is to so thoroughly distort reality that it becomes irrelevant, and they have largely succeeded with enough of their voters to pose a threat to the republic itself.
The media and Washington reporters, in particular, have not kept up, as The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan observes in her most recent op-ed. But Sullivan also offers apt prescriptions for the problem. "There is a way out," she writes. "But it requires the leadership of news organizations to radically reframe the mission of its Washington coverage."
Specifically, she says, get rid of the winners-losers political frame and replace it with a pro-democracy governance frame.
Stop asking who the winners and losers were in the latest skirmish. Start asking who is serving the democracy and who is undermining it.
If journalists started covering Washington through that lens, voters could actually judge who is working to preserve our democracy and who is working to destroy it. But that lens would also require a paradigm shift in newsrooms accompanied by a lot more high-level thinking and a willingness for reporters and editors to take the heat.
Unfortunately, most Washington journalists, mired in terrible habits, still aren't exhibiting that they are up to the task.
So until that changes, Democrats like Pelosi can help journalists by refusing to treat Republicans as if they are a party that is interested in governance or, indeed, democracy itself.
That is the type of congressional hearing America was treated to on Tuesday—and it was glorious.