Crickets: Jan. 6 Committee about to learn how Trump journalists feel
The House Jan. 6 Committee is about to find out what it feels like to be a political or investigative journalist covering Donald Trump.
You do your work, you put it out there, and then you wonder: Will any of it matter?
The committee aired last week what is most likely its final hearing, a well-produced and presented argument that Trump was the figure most responsible for the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. As before, facts were clearly laid out; testimony came from a cross-section of former administration figures.
Despite that, a stand-off continues between the two broad sections of Americans who support or detest the ex-president. Few minds are ever changed in a stalemate that has tested journalism’s core belief that information is power, knowledge the key to democracy.
In January of 2016 — during the earliest days of his first campaign — Donald Trump famously told the media: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”
Ever since then, the press has worked hard to prove him wrong — with extraordinarily limited success.
From the beginning, Trump was dogged by press revelations, any one of which would have ended another candidate’s career on the spot. Stories uncovered how he dodged federal taxes, lied about work with charities, and repeatedly insulted women.
When none of that prevented Trump for winning his party’s nomination or the presidential election itself, investigative journalists re-doubled their efforts. Along with other prominent national news organizations, the Washington Post created a team of reporters to fact-check everything the president said. By the end of Trump’s term, the Post counted “30,573 untruths” — an average of 21 a day.
And yet, a Pew Research report in August of 2020 called Trump’s approval ratings “unusually stable.” Eighty-seven percent of Republican voters surveyed supported him. For that large throng of Trump devotees, nothing the press did dented their enthusiasm.
In fact, the one profession perhaps most directly harmed by the many investigations and revelations was journalism itself. According to one report, from 2016 to 2021 the percentage of Republicans with at least some trust in the media was cut in half — from 70 percent to 35 percent.
That mistrust — driven by Trump’s claims that the press is “the enemy of the people” — gave a number of GOP voters permission to tune out or deride uncomfortable facts or figures.
Academics have coined a term for all of this. We are, they assert, in a “post-truth era,” where no there is no consensus about what constitutes the truth of any particular event or debate. Every detail is filtered through the preconceived notions of each reader or viewer.
For reporters, this means their work has little chance of breaking through, of finding and then changing minds that might be open to processing new information. Instead, journalism now tends to simply validate the point of view of one camp over the other.
The House Committee is unlikely to shift this dynamic. Journalists can sympathize with what seems to be the result of the House effort: two diametrically opposed views of truth and reality. A poll released in late September showed that, while 66 percent of Democrats have a lot of trust in the committee, 67 percent of Republicans have no trust in its investigation. A plurality of those polled — 35 percent — say the investigation has had no real impact on American democracy. The second largest group — 34 percent — say the committee’s work has actually harmed democracy.
As for Trump himself, 59 percent of GOP voters told researchers in August that he “deserves re-election.”
It’s certainly possible that — because of the Jan. 6 hearings — Republicans are in fact a little less enchanted with the ex-president, but are reluctant to say that to pollsters or the media. Best indicators of true feelings may come in the mid-terms next month, and in the run-up to the 2024 election.
Until then, the committee will have to settle for the same solace that sometimes soothes reporters, editors, and producers: history. Their work, at least, is not wasted — it’s part of the historical record of this unprecedented time, something for researchers and scholars to comb through many years from now.
Cold comfort for people used to influencing events here-and-now. But in a post-truth era, that may be all the comfort one can expect.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.
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