So the committee thinks that its potential audience is two-thirds of the nation? A third of the nation wouldn’t read a 600-word statement from a newly emerged divinity explaining what the new era of peace and enlightenment was going to be like. Even if it was illustrated with … well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. There’s no way — no way — that anything like a third of the nation, let alone two out of three people, is going to read the Jan. 6 report.
This doesn’t mean the report is useless. For one thing, quite a few opinion leaders will familiarize themselves with the highlights, and some will actually read it, and what they learn from it will filter out to the public. Still, the public has two important defenses against absorbing new information. One is various degrees of inattentiveness; few people pay close attention to the news, and some hardly notice even major events. The other is partisanship. The committee’s findings are certain to reflect badly on former President Donald Trump, so partisan Democrats will be eager to accept and remember those findings, while partisan Republicans will resist them.
Even if those who pay the closest attention to politics, including party and media elites, study and learn from the report, it’s still not clear what effects will follow.
The committee has apparently been studying how the national commission on terrorist attacks put together its excellent 2004 report on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which did in fact hit the best seller list. Putting aside the question of how many people who bought that report actually read it, the more relevant question is what difference it made — and the answer is that its impact was extremely limited. And that commission was designed to yield policy suggestions that at least in theory were unknown when it started its work.
The more useful parallels for the Jan. 6 committee would be the Senate Watergate committee, which reported its findings in 1974, and the joint congressional Iran-contra committee’s work 13 years later, and neither of those really had influential reports.
The House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack has pushed its public hearings back again and again, now to sometime in May — that is, some 16 months after the insurrection and Trump’s final attempts to subvert the 2020 presidential election. The panel is reportedly still unsure of the “the structure or topic” of those hearings.
There’s simply no good excuse for this. Both the delay and the obsessive focus on the report instead of full public hearings are mistakes. (The committee took testimony last year from the law-enforcement officials who repelled the attack, but hasn’t followed up in public.) It’s easy to overstate the potential of hearings, which are subject to some of the same inattentiveness and partisan screens that limit the impact of the report. Even the Senate Watergate hearings were only part of what eventually produced President Richard Nixon’s resignation. And those were the most successful such hearings in the TV era. What’s more, they took place at a low point in partisanship, and at the peak of the dominance of the broadcast TV networks and their news departments.
But hearings at least have a chance. Live testimony can produce great TV. And while even a successful rollout of a report will be hard to keep in the news for more than a few days, a series of hearings can produce weeks of developments. That includes the possibility that committee members could become characters in a national drama, just as Senator Sam Ervin and others became in 1973.
The structure of the committee — it’s small, with two Republicans who are strong Trump opponents — gives it advantages in presenting what it wants to present and how. Live hearings can’t dominate the media landscape the way they could 50 years ago, but even then the live audience was only a piece of how information was disseminated. Now? A fair number of people still watch the broadcast network news and the broadcast network morning shows. Those who don’t may see clips on social media.
It’s an uphill battle, but hearings have a chance to make a dent in public awareness and even opinion. If there are going to be high-level prosecutions, which is a choice the Justice Department and not the committee will make, public hearings could set the stage for them. If not, they might convince those who do pay attention that what Trump and his allies did was important and a threat to the nation.
By waiting this long to start those hearings, the committee has already made that uphill battle harder. Still, the sooner the better, even at this point. And while a full report is certainly worth doing, especially given that new information may show up after the hearings end, the last thing anyone should expect is that the report will be drive public opinion.
Get to the hearings. Now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.