PBS “Frontline” is out with a new documentary last week offering the House Select Committee on Jan. 6 the kind of graphic, vivid depiction of their work that the nine-member panel so desperately craved.
Last Tuesday, PBS published “Democracy on Trial,” a nearly two-and-a-half-hour documentary chronicling the inner operations of the since-disbanded Jan. 6 Committee.
“‘Democracy on Trial’ traces the road to this unprecedented moment,” the video’s description reads, “and examines the implications of the historic criminal case unfolding in the midst of a presidential election year.” That last part is key. Two years ago, committee staff worked with corporate media to gin up enthusiasm about the J6 show trial to get out voters for the midterms.
“They hope their recommendations to prevent another insurrection will be adopted, but also that their work will repel voters from Republicans who they say helped propel the attack,” the Post reported at the time. Now that former President Donald Trump appears to be on the cusp of another presidential triumph in November, the Jan. 6 documentary — which is at least partially funded by taxpayer dollars — came just in time to set the narrative again before the 2024 election. The documentary also came one month before Trump was set to stand trial in a D.C. federal courtroom, but Judge Tanya Chutkan vacated the March 4 start date days after the PBS debut.
Chris Bray, an ex-soldier and independent journalist on Substack, asked how “honest and careful” the documentary was with covering the politically charged topic of the Jan. 6 riot. Bray answered with screenshots from the PBS feature, which compared pro-Trump demonstrators to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) because a handful of people carried confederate flags at the Capitol.
“New shamelessness accomplishment UNLOCKED!” Bray wrote. “See, what happened on January 6 is that, um, hooded Klansmen marched against the Capitol, more or less. Or, well, okay, it wasn’t that, but it was just like it. Grand Imperial Wizard Donald Trump!!!!”
The PBS feature ran as if it were produced by members of the committee itself. The network uncritically aired every propaganda point offered by the panel, told by the members and staff themselves, including fabricated timelines and debunked testimony.
For example, PBS dedicated a roughly 10-minute segment to an examination of Trump’s conduct over what committee members say was a 187-minute gap between the riot turmoil and the president’s call to peace. Former Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of two Republicans appointed to the committee by Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, co-led the “187-minute hearing” in the summer of 2022 and outlined why the panel decided to focus an entire session on the supposed timeline.
“I think it was important for us to just hopefully express that outrage of how there are people that are willing to die for this country and this guy couldn’t even follow through on his basic oath to defend the constitutional branch of government,” Kinzinger told PBS.
A few seconds later, the dramatic male narrator, who spoke in the ominous tone of someone narrating a Batman movie, summarized the timeline. “The 187 minutes began as Trump left the stage and demanded that his motorcade drive him to the Capitol,” he said.
But the 187-minute timeline was a complete fabrication peddled by a complicit press. The Washington Post timestamps the first break-in at the Capitol around 2:15 p.m. Trump issued a tweet at 2:38 p.m. demanding the rioters “stay peaceful!”
“Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement,” Trump wrote. “They are truly on the side of our Country.”
Trump issued another tweet about 30 minutes later.
At 4:17 p.m., the president tweeted out a video demanding that rioters leave the Capitol — a video that Twitter promptly removed from the platform. In other words, Trump first addressed the rioters who breached the Capitol building after a mere 23 minutes, far from the 187 minutes outlined by the performers on the Jan. 6 Committee.
PBS also focused on to testimony from discredited ex-White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson, who worked for White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. PBS dramatized the already over-the-top testimony from Hutchinson claiming Trump tried to violently hijack the presidential limousine after his speech at the Ellipse to drive himself to the Capitol where a virulent mob nearly overthrew democracy.
“Later, Cassidy Hutchinson heard reports about what happened,” said the narrator, setting up her testimony as if it were unequivocal truth rather than discredited hearsay:
So, once the president had gotten into the vehicle with Bobby Engel, who’s the head of Mr. Trump’s security detail, he thought that they were going up to the Capitol and when Bobby had relayed to him ‘we’re not, we don’t have the assets to do it, it’s not secure, we’re going back to the West Wing, the president had a very strong, a very angry response to that. Tony described him as being irate. The president said something to the effect of I’m the f’ing president, take me up to the Capitol now, to which Bobby responded, sir, we have to go back to the West Wing.
The documentary stopped there, but here’s what Hutchinson said next:
The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel. Mr. Engel grabbed his arm, said, sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel.
We’re going back to the West Wing. We’re not going to the Capitol. Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge towards Bobby Engel. And Mr. — when Mr. Ornato had recounted this story to me, he had motioned towards his clavicles.
Hutchinson’s sources went on the record to contradict her sworn testimony immediately after she gave it. Legacy networks NBC, CBS, and CNN each reported that Hutchinson’s sources were prepared to go under oath to testify that nothing she said had ever happened.
None of those denials made it into PBS’s two-and-a-half-hour documentary. Nor did texts published by The Federalist in which Hutchinson had commiserated with colleagues shortly after the Capitol demonstrations that she “would rather shoot myself dead into the Potomac than see marine one flying around this city without 45 again.” When speaking before the Jan. 6 Committee, however, Hutchinson changed her story, saying she was “disgusted” by the president’s conduct “watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.”
“It was something that was really hard in that moment to digest,” she added.
Publicity for the Publicity Stunt
For all of the documentary’s flaws, there was one area where the feature film for the Jan. 6 show trials hit the mark. Key members of the probe tacitly admitted that the partisan probe was an election-year publicity stunt.
“The one thing that we knew was the information that we have is compelling,” Kinzinger told PBS. “The thing we needed to do was tell that to the American people in a compelling way.”
The Jan. 6 Committee tapped former ABC News President James Goldston to produce their hearings just months before the 2022 midterms. The panel also hired another producer whose job history included stints at Bloomberg, ABC News “Nightline,” and “Good Morning America.”
“I got a call pretty much out of the blue from the Jan. 6 Committee,” Goldson said in the documentary. “They wanted a storyteller.”
“While they were brilliant lawyers,” Goldston added, “storytelling for a mass audience is not what they do.”
“To bring in a guy like this who would think outside the box really did prove to be fruitful,” said Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine in the documentary. “It was Golston who really began to envision this as in a way a kind of miniseries that there would be sort of nine episodes and that these episodes would tackle particular themes.”
Thanks to the Jan. 6 Committee’s made-for-TV “miniseries,” PBS had everything it needed to pull together a cinematic drama months before the 2024 presidential election.
Trump had one defender throughout the entire two-hour saga in the form of Robert Ray, an attorney who represented the former president in the first Senate impeachment trial. The rest of the star-studded lineup included prominent anti-Trump pundits and individuals who worked directly on the Jan. 6 Committee. PBS relied on interviews with David French, Bill Kristol, Charlie Sykes, and Alyssa Farah Griffin.
For viewers looking for a fair, balanced, and honest take on the Jan. 6 Committee, this isn’t it. For the committee’s cheerleaders who demand a Trump conviction, their tax dollars were well spent.