Storytelling school

Insurgency audiences provide epic storytelling, no clear ending

The January 6 hearings into the facts and causes of the terrorist attack on the United States Capitol are a colossal feat of storytelling with myriad results, say communications and constitutional law scholars at the University of Miami. possible.

Sam Terilli, associate professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Management at the University of Miami School of Communication, and Frances Hill, professor in the School of Law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar for the Profession, reviewed the House Select Committee’s metrics and assessed its efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Terilli explored the challenges of trying to engage a polarized and media-fragmented audience with such a massive story – 11 months of closed-door testimony, 1,000 witnesses and the review of over 100,000 documents – through the series of public hearings that began on June 9 A fifth hearing was held on June 23, with a surprise sixth hearing held on Tuesday that included testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump’s former House chief of staff Blanche, Mark Meadows.

“It’s a completely different media landscape than the Watergate era – the 1970s audiences that some have likened it to,” Terilli said. “There’s a lot more media with networks, cable and social media – it’s a new era of trying to penetrate viewers and more importantly voters.”

Terilli highlighted what he called the production values ​​the committee used to try to meet this challenge.

“The videotaped presentation and never-before-seen images were all designed to captivate, and they captivated those watching,” he said, noting that “a video is much more engaging than someone reading a transcript”.

Most congressional hearings are often interrupted by lawmakers trying to make their partisan points, Terilli pointed out, but these hearings are more streamlined, with members of both parties more committed to developing a cohesive narrative. He added that the questions appear to be well targeted and thoughtfully designed.

“It’s not by accident – and it’s all an acknowledgment of the demands of telling such a story today and how much our attention spans have changed,” he said.

The panel’s approach and output to date has been as effective as it could be, but Terilli suggested the crucial question is whether the narrative is reaching its target audience.

“My hunch is that the parts of the potential audience — the voting audience — most likely to pay attention are already absorbed,” Terilli said. “Either it’s the voters who most likely take these allegations very seriously, or it’s those who strongly believe in Donald Trump or conspiracy theories, and those who believe this committee is just a job of partisan hacking – and so on are not likely to pay attention, no matter what the committee does or says,” he added.

“Yet there is a second audience – some people in the middle, a bit to the right or left of center, who can still be persuaded and might have an open mind and listen to a factually well-reported and well-told story.” Terilli continued. “It’s a bit, maybe only 5-10% – and maybe that’s overly optimistic – but it’s ultimately the audience that the committee is trying to reach.”

Hill, a constitutional law expert, played down comparisons to the Watergate hearings – ‘most people weren’t even alive at the time to remember it’ – and instead emphasized the motivation and model audiences, bicameral [both House and Senate] and bipartisan [representation from both parties].

“Immediately after the attack, there was anger and outrage on both sides. It was after all their building and workplace that was ransacked and their representatives who were targeted,” Hill said. “So there was the question of how this could have happened and what was needed to prevent it from happening again.”

Hill pointed out that the House and Senate have established rules and the ability to convene a committee to investigate. Either an existing committee can be given permission, or a new select committee can be created, as in this case. A certain amount of evidence and an agenda are required, and both houses must vote to approve.

While congressional hearings may reflect partisanship, they are ultimately about uncovering and releasing evidence for the good of the country and the protection of its ideals.

Hill noted the Benghazi hearings that surfaced ahead of the 2016 election and focused on the testimony of then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“We had diplomats who died, it was tragic and heartbreaking – although the idea of ​​blaming one person seemed a bit far-fetched at least to some – but there was a vote to find out what happened , to learn from it, and prevent it from happening again,” Hill said.

Noting that the House committee is limited to investigating, Hill said she was nonetheless fascinated by the scope, composition and overall approach they took.

“It’s true that they don’t have the right to issue an indictment, but no one can tell them what questions to ask,” she said. “And there’s a huge staff – and if you’re going to interview a thousand people, you need them,” she said.

The staff includes experts in civil and criminal procedure, constitutional law and, based on recent developments regarding alleged abuse of political structure or office, tax experts, she pointed out.

Hill referred to a range of charges that Justice Department prosecutors could potentially pursue as a result of evidence uncovered during the hearings: sedition, crimes involving conspiracy to obstruct official process or defrauding the United States. States, and fraud or other economic crimes associated with the public interest. officials.

“It turns out there’s a lot of evidence that we never imagined we had that we have now,” Hill said, adding that she was fascinated by the “misinterpretation of intent,” a point of view. critical law, but which has been exaggerated in TV shows involving lawyers.

“They’ve already shown all the intent they’re going to need for various charges – intent has become something less of this big, ubiquitous defense that can be invoked in any case, but intent doesn’t mean foresight,” he said. she declared.

Whatever the results, Hill assumes the hearings will continue for some time, possibly even after the November election, and the committee’s work is far from done.

“They’ve interviewed a thousand witnesses and apparently more and more people are calling the committee saying, ‘I’d like to introduce myself and share what I know,'” Hill said.

“For a lot of people, it’s an excruciatingly difficult set of situations: nobody wants to go to jail, nobody wants to report their friends, and nobody wants to blow up the idea of ​​executive privilege. They just don’t want it to be misused,” she said. “And whether it’s being misused is not at all easy to determine.”

Ultimately, the committee would release a summary of about 200 to 400 pages and a report of its findings, according to Hill.

“I can’t imagine how important this is going to be and to make sure there are no internal contradictions, it’s a huge and daunting undertaking because, if not considered under all angles, an inexcusable mistake is going to be made,” she said. said.

Terilli acknowledged the committee’s challenge in conveying the narrative and engaging the audience. He was comforted by an experience last week when he visited a local auto repair shop where the hearings were televised.

“These guys were watching and listening to one of the witnesses say he just wasn’t going to break his oath as a public official,” Terilli recounted. “I don’t know their politics, but these guys just shook their heads. They found it all astounding and discussed some of the allegations of facts that were uncovered.