The January 6 Hearings Are Fighting for Your Attention

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Last night, a large swath of Americans tuned in to watch the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol hold a hearing live on television. Glossily produced, it laid out facts about the insurrection that even those religiously following the story did not know. It aired on no fewer than six networks (notably not Fox News), and became instant fodder for late-night television sendups. (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert aired a special live episode following the hearing.) As it unfolded, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about, in this era of too-many-screens, what it is people choose to look at.

Yes, people have been following the actions of the January 6 committee for nearly 10 months. On Twitter, on cable, via news sites. But the Thursday night broadcast felt different. The committee brought in a former ABC news executive to produce the hearings and make them look less like a C-SPAN live feed. They aim, according to Maryland representative Jamie Raskin, to “tell the story of a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential election and block the transfer of power” from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. In terms of televised politics, it’s on par with the Watergate hearings.

In other words, you must see TV. That’s what the committee wanted, to give their findings to the court of public opinion. At a time of misinformation, the goal is to train the eyes of the electorate to clearly see what has happened to democracy in the US. They surely didn’t get all of them. During the hearings, Fox ran Tucker Carlson’s show without commercials. And amidst all of it, attention was split between the TV and the smaller screen. Arguing about politics is one of the social internet’s many enshrined pastimes, but it can often feel like there’s more talking and analysis than actual observation.

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It is, I suppose, about the act of looking. In an essay in The New York Times this week, Kim Phuc Phan Thi — the woman known as “Napalm Girl” after her image was captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut during the Vietnam War — wrote that the photo often made her feel “ugly and ashamed.” She noted that America typically doesn’t see images of school shootings, like the one last month in Uvalde, Texas, the way it does photos of foreign wars. Doing so might seem “unbearable,” she wrote, “but we should confront them.”

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