Over 20 million Americans watched last Thursday’s prime-time congressional hearing about the Jan. 6 insurrection. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said he wouldn’t be one of them.
“I’ve been paying zero attention,” said Hawley, whose raised-fist salute to protesters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has become an iconic image of the day. “I imagine it will be this kind of theater from now until November.”
Hawley may have avoided watching that kickoff hearing and the panel’s Monday hearing too — he declined to comment to Grid. But comments like Hawley’s from Republican politicians are messaging strategies to reduce the impact of the panel’s findings, experts say.
And conservative media outlets — particularly Fox News, which initially declined to air the hearings — leveraged rhetorical sleight of hand to control how their viewers experience the historic event.
“By ignoring the gravity of what happened on Jan. 6, or trying to distract from it, it normalizes the action.”Kurt Braddock, American University
These are relatively common techniques to try to control political fallout from any event. But in this case, they risk legitimizing an unprecedented act of violence as a valid political act. That’s dangerous for the health of a democracy and its citizens, said Kurt Braddock, who teaches public communications at American University, focusing on radicalization and political violence.
“By ignoring the gravity of what happened on Jan. 6, or trying to distract from it, it normalizes the action,” Braddock told Grid.
“There are people who hold some extreme beliefs who wouldn’t otherwise act on them. But they’re seeing their elected officials, the people that they admire, the people that they value, either minimizing or outright justifying [violent actions]. And that can motivate them to take action where they otherwise wouldn’t,” said Braddock.
The latest polling suggests nearly three out of four Republicans still believe the “Big Lie” that animated the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. When Republican leaders refuse to engage with the substance of the Jan. 6 hearings, that can read as an endorsement of the violence at the Capitol that day and of then-President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign to reverse election outcomes in key states.
Jan. 6 was different, and it needs to be treated as such
Many prominent Republican lawmakers criticized the focus on Jan. 6, arguing that committee members should investigate something else instead.
“Inflation, defunding the police, critical race theory — that’s what people care about,” said Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Scott did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts say their responses reflect propaganda strategies, some quite old, designed to minimize the day’s importance and distract from its fallout.
These responses leverage “points of stasis,” a rhetorical strategy that dates back to Aristotle, said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University. The strategy seeks to “frame what happened, influence how we should understand it, dictate how we should value it and outline what should be done about it,” as Mercieca has previously written.
“The minimization strategy is key to that,” she told Grid. “The idea is, first, to say that this committee is in some way hypocritical, that it’s tainted by partisanship or tainted by irrational hatred for Donald Trump or wanting to destroy the Republican Party.”
The overwhelming majority of Americans appear to grasp the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Going into the hearings, over 80 percent of Americans said they disapproved of the Capitol assault, and 70 percent of Americans said they think understanding the facts as they unfolded on that violent day is important.
By contrast, about half of Republicans said it’s not very important at all, and more than half — 56 percent — said the rioters were “defending freedom.”
So the priority for many Republicans appears to be keeping support for the party high by keeping support for the investigation low. “The whole strategy is about weathering the moment, hoping that it all blows over without anything happening, without any consequences,” Mercieca said.
What right-wing news consumers are hearing instead
Fox News’ biggest personality, Tucker Carlson, called the Jan. 6 panel’s kickoff hearing “unfiltered propaganda” about a “forgettably minor outbreak.” Carlson’s program aired during the first part of Thursday’s hearing, followed by Sean Hannity.
Hannity and fellow Fox News star Laura Ingraham provided their own counterprogramming. Hannity called the event a “sham,” and Ingraham dismissed it afterward as “nearly two hours of an unsuccessful, laborious attempt to connect the dots back to Trump to a coup that never happened.”
Of course, in private messages both Hannity and Ingraham have shared greater concern about the day’s violence. On Jan. 6 itself, Hannity and Ingraham both sent texts to Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows asking the president to intervene and call off the insurrectionists. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy,” Ingraham wrote then.
A request to Fox News for comment, from the network or its on-air personalities, did not garner a response.
Elsewhere, elected officials including Hawley said they were ignoring the events altogether.
“The whole thing’s an absurdity designed by desperate Democrats to try to help them this fall and to try to weaken Trump if he should run again in 2024,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich told the Guardian. “So I don’t pay any attention to it.”
Experts said Gingrich’s deflection, like Hawley’s, is one tactic when faced with new evidence: simply ignoring the whole process. Gingrich did not respond to an inquiry from Grid for this story.
“If you actually engage with this further, what do you have to win at this point? Because you are now on the defensive side. You will need to be arguing against [the] information coming out,” said Inga Kristina Trauthig, a senior research fellow at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.
On Monday, Trump himself released a 12-page rebuttal to the hearings through his Save America PAC. But even that lengthy tome does not engage in the particulars of the committee’s finding. Instead, the former president largely repeated his unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him and lobbed generic criticisms of the hearings, like calling the panel a partisan “kangaroo court.”
And then Trump pivoted to economic issues.
“Politicians from both parties, but mostly the Democrats, worked in conjunction with corporate elitists to strip Americans of our right to elect our own leaders,” he wrote, describing inflation, high gas prices and the baby formula shortage.
“Magic tricks” and shaping public opinion
As a major network that also serves as a prime channel for right-wing viewers, Fox News faced a challenge with the hearings. The panel’s events were too big of a story to ignore entirely. But Fox News’ programming and audience, which have provided substantial support for Trump’s false stolen-election narrative, would not easily accommodate hourslong, detailed recountings of the events of Jan. 6, and the ex-president’s efforts to retain power despite losing a credible, fair election.
Carlson’s show ran uninterrupted by its usual commercial breaks during the two-hour hearing last Thursday night. A silent feed of the hearing took up one-half the screen, while Carlson interviewed Trump-friendly guests who equated the violent day with ordinary protest or dismissed the events altogether as a “hoax.”
“Whenever [a] tired teacher or a mom or a dad, somebody wants to go to their Capitol and protest what they saw as an election rife with lots of questions and fraudulent voting, somehow there’s something untoward with their desire to speak up,” one guest, Conservative Political Action Coalition Chairman Matt Schlapp, told Carlson. “Why can’t they also speak up?”
Another guest bluntly dismissed the Capitol attack as completely fake. “It’s a clear hoax,” said Darren Beattie, a reporter for a right-wing website. “We know what’s happened, but there is unfinished business and we need to expose the Feds for what they’ve done.”
“[Carlson] used what we can think of as magic tricks to control what his audience saw, or what they thought they saw, with their own eyes,” said Mercieca, the rhetoric scholar. Showing the hearing at the same time as interviews forces a viewer’s attention in multiple directions, but emphasizes only the commentary.
The silent hearing feed also did not cut to the multimedia elements the rest of the viewing public saw, including new video footage from the riots or prerecorded interviews with former attorney general William Barr and Ivanka Trump.
“So if you were a Tucker Carlson audience member … you would think that you had seen with your own eyes exactly what happened at the committee,” she said. “But you didn’t. You saw a very carefully scripted and controlled view of what happened that edited out key, crucial, contentious points of information.”
Of course, the hearing is designed to shape public opinion, too. The House select committee hired a former broadcast news executive to help produce the event, which unspools over the course of several days and features documentary footage and well-timed information reveals.
That’s a different use of political storytelling, Mercieca said. Viewers of the unedited hearing understand that they’re watching a case being laid out before them. But Carlson uses what Mercieca calls a “force, dupe and hold” strategy.
“He’s forcing his audience to focus on Tucker instead of the video,” she said. “Then he dupes the audience into believing that they saw the whole video — which is edited so that they haven’t — and then he holds them captive by not giving commercial breaks so they won’t leave and see the truth.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.