When Politics Comes to Prime Time: A History of Televised Hearings

by | Jun 13, 2022 | Politics, Corruption & Criminality, Quick Facts

When Politics Comes to Prime Time: A History of Televised Hearings

by | Jun 13, 2022 | Politics, Corruption & Criminality, Quick Facts

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on Capitol held two prime-time televised hearings so far. Dismissed by some as show trials, these hearings may test the medium’s ability to capture the nation’s attention.

The House of Representatives Jan. 6 select committee began what is billed as up to six televised hearings last week, some of them in prime time, hoping that it can convince the American people of the gravity of the conspiracy that led to the storming of the U.S. Capitol weeks after the 2020 election and just 15 days before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. The committee has been at this work for 11 months. It plans to release its report to the American people sometime in the fall. The first prime-time hearings were carried live on conventional and cable television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN and C-SPAN) plus a variety of streaming services. Unfortunately, the FOX News Channel decided not to air the hearings live, saying its hosts will talk about them “as the hearings warrant.”

The question is whether the six televised hearings will make much of a difference in public perceptions of the Trump presidency and its aftermath.

The historical legacy of televised Congressional hearings is mixed. It might be useful to look back to other televised hearings in American history.

The Army-McCarthy Hearings: Have You No Sense of Decency?

Television was just finding its stride in 1954. In 1945, there were only 10,000 television sets in American homes. By 1955, half of American homes had television sets. By 1960 the number was up to 87 percent and today, the average home has at least 7.3 “screens,” including more than one television set.

After his 1950 “Enemies Within” speech, former U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy ferociously held sway over America’s political life for only four years but the effects resonated for decades. (International News Press)

The first dramatic intersection of congressional hearings and television occurred between April and June in 1954. The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations was attempting to sort out a dispute between the U.S. Army and Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. After a speech in Wheeling, W.Va., in February 1950, McCarthy had risen to national prominence by claiming (without ever producing a scintilla of actual evidence) that the U.S. government “harbors a nest of Communists and Communist sympathizers who are helping to shape our foreign policy.”

His one-man campaign of innuendo and denunciation eroded public confidence in government at the height of the Cold War, ruined lives and produced great consternation in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1953, McCarthy declared that he had discovered communist infiltration of the Army Signal Corps. The Army, in turn, accused McCarthy and his congressional staff of seeking special treatment for Private G. David Schine, a close friend of McCarthy’s chief counsel Roy Cohn. The televised hearings were thus a kind of showdown between the U.S. Army and the most outspoken member of Congress.

On June 9, 1954, towards the end of the subcommittee’s hearings, the Army’s chief counsel Joseph Welch challenged Cohn to produce McCarthy’s list of 130 subversives in U.S. weapons production plants. In an attempt to divert attention from the nonexistent list, Sen. McCarthy countered that Welch could better spend his energy investigating a young lawyer in Welch’s Boston law firm who had left-leaning associations. Although the lawyer in question was no longer part of the Army’s legal team, McCarthy would not let it drop. Finally, Welch said, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

It was a shocking and gripping moment in the early history of television, and it is cited by historians as the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s reign of terror. In fact, it was television, not once but twice, that brought McCarthy down.

In March 1954, the dean of CBS newscasters, Edward R. Murrow, devoted his weekly See It Now broadcast to a full-throated denunciation of McCarthy. Using McCarthy’s own words to exhibit his demagogic methods, Murrow jettisoned all pretense of objectivity in his condemnation of a man he called “the junior Senator from Wisconsin.”

Editorializing at the end of the broadcast, Murrow said, “This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent…. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities…. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies…. Good night and good luck.”

Murrow’s open and uncompromising attack on McCarthy is the stuff of legend in media history. There is, however, considerable doubt about the actual impact of the See It Now broadcast. CBS did give McCarthy equal time, three weeks later, but nobody remembers McCarthy’s rebuttal. McCarthy was censured by the Senate on Dec. 2, 1954. A very heavy drinker before and after his fall from power, he died on May 2, 1957, of cirrhosis of the liver. He was just 48 years old.

Watergate: A Modified Limited Hangout

Maureen and John Dean on the day of testimony in the Watergate hearings. (senate.gov/YouTube)

It may have been what White House spokesman Ronald Ziegler called “a third-rate burglary,” but what we remember is the televised hearings in the summer of 1973, with scowling John Mitchell gesticulating with his pipe and his double chin, young John Dean, neat and trim, his head squeezed in tight round glasses, his thinning hair exhibiting the first signs of a comb-over, with his wife Maureen sitting behind him, in a white dress, like a statue of spousal support, her platinum blonde hair parted perfectly in the middle.

It was on June 25, 1973, that Dean reported to a breathless nation that he had met with President Nixon back on March 21, and had warned him that the dirty tricks, the Watergate burglary, and the subsequent waves of coverup had come to represent “a cancer on the Presidency.” Nixon and his defenders insisted that Dean was lying, but when accurate transcripts of that conversation were revealed to the public in the summer of 1974, they confirmed unmistakably that Dean had told the truth.

Transcripts of that Oval Office conversation, in which President Nixon said he could quite easily find $1 million in hush money for the Watergate burglary defendants, and the June 23, 1972, conversation, just a few days after the break-in, in which Nixon directed his key aides to call off the FBI investigation by saying it would reveal and compromise critical national security operations, convinced nearly everyone, including Nixon himself, that he must resign the presidency or face certain conviction in a Senate impeachment trial.

We remember jowly Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, with his over-drawl issuing nuggets of constitutional wisdom from behind the gavel in the Senate Caucus Room. Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker beginning his rise to national fame by asking, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Georgia’s Herman Talmadge defending the president right up until it was no longer possible, and counsel Fred Thompson, who later became a Senator from Tennessee and then a successful actor, including five years on the television franchise Law and Order.

And of course, we remember Alexander Butterfield’s stunning revelation of the existence of the White House tapes. On July 16, 1973, Butterfield told the committee on national TV that Nixon had ordered a taping system installed in the White House in 1971 to automatically record all conversations. This was the moment when the Watergate affair blew wide open. No longer could the damaging testimony of John Dean be lost in the limbo of the “he said, she said” paradigm, in which the victory usually goes to the accused. Now it was, “he said — and the President of the United States confirmed it on tape.”

It was the decade of disillusionment. Kent State, Watergate, America’s ignominious flight from Vietnam, with the indelible image of Vietnamese individuals clinging to the struts of helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and then the Church Committee hearings in 1975 that revealed America’s nefarious campaign of supporting coups in Central and Latin America, including at times assassinations of duly elected public officials. Public respect for government has never really recovered from the tumultuous Watergate era. It is fascinating to watch Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and John Dean serve as pundits now during the Jan. 6 hearings.

The Iran-Contra Affair

The Iran-Contra Affair of the 1980s was no Watergate, but in many respects, it was a more serious constitutional crisis. The Reagan administration was determined to prevent the socialistic Sandinistas from taking power in Nicaragua, but Congress, in something called the Boland Amendment (Dec. 8, 1982), explicitly forbade the administration from aiding the right-wing Contras. Meanwhile, seven American hostages were being held in Lebanon. Some genius cooked up the idea of selling arms to the radical Islamic Iranian regime through back channels, in exchange for which the Khomeini government would pressure Hezbollah to free the hostages. Rogue members of the National Security Council then diverted some of the arms proceeds to support the anti-communist Contras in Central America. Thus, in a single clandestine operation, the conspirators violated several laws and a central American principle. The arms sales to Iran violated the official U.S. arms embargo per Iran. The funneling of money to the Contras violated the Boland Amendment. And the deal with Iran violated America’s principle of “never negotiating with terrorists.” As they say, what could go wrong?

When all of this inevitably came to light, the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition was convened, chaired by Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye. The nationally televised hearings dragged on from May to early August 1987. The committee called 500 witnesses, including Major General Richard Secord, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Attorney General Edwin Meese.

Pundits and Reagan opponents hoped that the Iran-Contra hearings would rise to the grandeur of the Watergate hearings, but they never did. Many Americans regarded the crisis as an inter-government squabble over policy, not the kind of dramatic criminal activity that had brought down Richard Nixon. Besides, the American people liked Ronald Reagan and they had begun to understand that he now brought diminished attention and mental acuity to his presidency. Almost certainly President Reagan had engaged in impeachable offenses, but the country didn’t have the heart to remove him from office.

We chiefly remember handsome 43-year-old Oliver North playing eagle scout before the American people, holding up his right hand as if he were the last American patriot, and convincing millions on the right that he was somehow a national hero for breaking the law to pursue his anti-communist agenda. There was also 27-year-old Fawn Hall, his young and self-consciously attractive secretary with the big ’80s hair, whose wide-eyed admiration for Oliver North raised eyebrows in millions of American homes.

In her June 1987 testimony, Ms. Hall admitted to altering and shredding a large number of documents, smuggling others inside her clothing, including in her long boots, and delivering them to North, who had been fired from his national security position. “Sometimes you have to go above the law,” she testified. Ms. Hall destroyed so many documents in such haste that she jammed the shredder.

President Reagan eventually gave a televised address to the nation in which he took responsibility for the Iran-Contra Affair. He said he didn’t exactly remember authorizing the arms-for-hostages deal, but, well, maybe he did, he couldn’t quite any longer be sure. This sad acknowledgement of diminished capacity brought down the temperature of the constitutional crisis. Reagan finished out his second term. Then, on Nov. 5, 1994, Mr. Reagan bowed out of American life by releasing a moving letter in which he acknowledged that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

And Now This

Given the saturation of media in our lives, including 24/7/365 cable news and streaming, the over-stimulation of American television viewers, and the hyper-polarization of our national politics, it is unlikely that the Jan. 6 hearings will change many minds. Those who believe President Trump and his allies entered into a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election and apparently sought to rough up, kidnap, or even kill opposition members of Congress are likely to find chilling confirmation of their worst fears. Those predisposed to defend President Trump no matter how bad things appear have already dismissed the hearings as a partisan witch hunt whose sole purpose is to blacken the reputation and legacy of the former president. Just how many people will find themselves changing their minds after watching the hearings or media highlights is unclear, but the chaos of the last half dozen years suggests that the hearings will be a wash. Almost everyone’s view of Donald Trump and his actions have been “baked in” for years now.

What used to be called objective truth and evidence are openly sneered at by millions of Americans in this era of “fake news,” the “lamestream media,” and “alternative facts.” Not even the presence of Republicans Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, a reliably conservative constitutionalist, is likely to build credibility for the hearings or the committee’s final report. The insurrection timeline that the committee has painstakingly constructed from hundreds of interviews, and tens of thousands of documents, will attempt to show that the Jan. 6 riot was not spontaneous at all, but a well-planned conspiracy involving hundreds of people, including the president of the United States himself.

Even if the evidence is apparently incontrovertible, there are millions of people who will simply never believe it or — even if they come to accept that the evidence of insurrection is solid — will argue that the rioters were patriotic freedom fighters who were doing what was necessary to save American democracy in the wake of an unquestionably stolen election. There is a significant minority of Americans who will say the rioters were antifa infiltrators who showed up on Jan. 6 to discredit an otherwise peaceful and lawful protest. Equally, there are millions of Americans who will insist that Mr. Trump was the ringleader of the riot even if the committee concludes that the evidence does not actually implicate him.

Television Ain’t What It Used to Be

We are now, in many respects, beyond revelation, beyond a time when televised congressional hearings can make a difference in our national outlook. We are worn down by scandal and political controversy, the shouting and the bickering, the yo-yo effect in which the same events can be dismissed by one side as a “nothingburger” and called “a grave threat to American democracy” by the other. Every new constitutional crisis just erodes our respect for civic institutions a little bit more, but almost nothing now grabs the American people with the potency of John Dean in 1973.

As they say, stay tuned.

For a significant percentage of the population, the hearings and the committee report will be an urgent warning that we could lose our democratic system and slide into authoritarianism — and nearly did. Another significant percentage of the people will regard the whole business as yadda yadda yadda, the Deep State and the Establishment joining hands to cover up The Steal. Given the short attention span of the American people, Jan. 6 is now very old news. Most people are more concerned about inflation and gasoline prices than the Proud Boys or Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s solidarity salute at the Capitol. It’s summertime. It seems likely that at least half the country will be golfing, cutting the grass, or watching the NBA finals.

Republished with permission from Governing Magazine, by Clay S. Jenkinson



Governing: The Future of States and Localities takes on the question of what state and local government looks like in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Governing is a resource for elected and appointed officials and other public leaders who are looking for smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change.

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