On Monday, Tucker Carlson used his popular prime-time program in an effort to undermine the work of last year’s House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack by presenting footage that, he claimed, would cast its conclusions into serious doubt. It was a flop. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy gave Carlson more than 40,000 hours of footage from that day, and the Fox News host used it to make the case that the vast majority of rioters were, in fact, peaceful “sightseers” smeared through guilt by association with a few bad apples. But to all but the most committed (or deluded) MAGA devotees, Carlson’s effort failed. A growing number of Republican lawmakers—including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sens. Mitt Romney, Thom Tillis, Mike Rounds, Kevin Cramer, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, and Joni Ernst—have condemned the push to rewrite history. The episode quickly became a subject of widespread mockery and scorn, apparently failing to gain even an iota of traction among the Trump-skeptical conservatives it was designed to entice.
This reaction is, of course, good news for American democracy: It shows that the party which theoretically stands to gain from downplaying Jan. 6 is sharply divided on that strategy, with some leaders sharply rejecting it. And we cannot underestimate the impact of Carlson’s recently revealed texts expressing contempt for the former president, which puts his shameless duplicity on full display. But it is also worth reflecting on the massive, perhaps decisive role that the Jan. 6 committee played in inoculating Americans against this whitewashing of the insurrection. For months, it has been difficult to articulate what, precisely, that committee accomplished: Its criminal referrals remain up in the air, its Republican co-chair lost her seat to a MAGA-oriented primary challenger, and it is now the subject of a cynical investigation by the new House GOP majority eager to discredit its work.
All of which raises the question: What good did any of it do? Carlson inadvertently gave us the answer. The Jan. 6 committee provided the nation with a definitive account of the violence that day, providing critical background information, a blow-by-blow account of the inciting acts, a tick-tock of the riot itself, and a lengthy epilogue covering the players’ reactions. In short, the committee served as prosecutor, laying out the strongest case against the offenders with such force and clarity that the most casual viewer could easily grasp it. (Hundreds of Jan. 6 cases have been quietly tried by actual federal prosecutors, but none of these have broken through with the public in the same way that the Jan. 6 committee’s proceedings did.) The committee treated the American people like a jury perfectly capable of drawing its own conclusions. The hearings were not, as Republicans insisted, an effort to influence any particular election, but an attempt to set the record straight forever.
From the start, the extensive video of Jan. 6 presented a challenge to the committee. It could not possibly show all the footage, or even all the most inculpatory footage, during its hearings. Instead, it had to pick a handful of highlights (or lowlights) that illustrated the broader story of the insurrection. Although James Goldston, a former TV executive hired by the committee, has declined to disclose his exact work on the hearings, his influence was evident in the selection of video. The committee repeatedly used harrowing montages of violence to help viewers understand what it felt like to be in a Capitol under siege. It juxtaposed these videos with supercuts of lawmakers reacting to the pandemonium to convey their terror and confusion. Finally, the committee deployed shorter standalone videos, like Josh Hawley’s infamous dash through the hallway or footage of rioters in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, to show how individual malefactors behaved amidst the chaos.
In other words, the Jan. 6 committee did what all good prosecutors do: contextualize evidence by situating it within a broader narrative of the alleged crime in question. The 40,000-plus hours of video provide enough content for any moderately sophisticated editor to tell almost any story they want about that day. What the committee did was tell a story that has the benefit of being true. We may remember the videos most clearly given that they were so graphic and vivid and, for a few news cycles, ubiquitous. But these videos were memorable precisely because they were so thoroughly contextualized. They punctuated—and corroborated—a huge amount of eyewitness testimony, cross-examination, and incriminating evidence like communications between key players.
That is how both the prosecution and defense make their case in a court of law, and it translated into congressional hearings perfectly. Lawyers understand that video evidence is not enough; different people can watch the same footage and see two totally different things. This problem arises frequently when law enforcement violates constitutional rights on camera: One court may see video of the incident as proof of official misconduct, while another may see it as absolving the police. If the plaintiffs are fortunate enough to get to a jury trial, lawyers on both sides ask jurors to see the video the way that they do. They do so by providing additional evidence that encourages the juror to support their interpretation of the footage. That’s why the Jan. 6 committee used so many short videos to confirm that their witness were telling the truth, rather than relying on the videos alone to make their case.
That strategy proved especially wise in light of Carlson’s whitewash. His theory of the case was that Jan. 6 was no insurrection at all, nor was it even violent, except for a few clashes involving a small subset of bad actors. He claimed that the Jan. 6 rioters were actually “sightseers” who were welcomed into the building by law enforcement, escorted around on a tour, and then unfairly tarnished by the actions of others (possibly undercover FBI agents). Conservatives have touted this theory from the start, with one GOP congressman calling the invasion a “normal tourist visit.” Carlson sought to bolster this theory with various videos showing relatively peaceable moments in parts of the Capitol complex during the riot. Most prominently, he showed a video misleadingly edited to make it look as if Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon Shaman, was merely taking an authorized tour. (Chansley has pleaded guilty to a felony offense and is currently serving a 41-month prison sentence.)
With more than 40,000 hours of surveillance footage, Carlson could probably stitch together hundreds of seemingly calm moments like this one. It wouldn’t matter. The Jan. 6 committee has insulated us from this insidious style of misinformation. We know these videos are in service of a lie even though they depict real events. Sure, not every second of the insurrection was violent or chaotic. So what? The insurrectionists used violence and chaos in their quest to overturn the election. That has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt both in courts of law and in the court of public opinion. Carlson’s narrative is akin to turning off Titanic right before the ship hit the iceberg then claiming the passengers all lived happily ever after.
Or take the notorious clip of Hawley running through the hallway to flee the rioters. Carlson called that video “a lie” on Monday. Why? Because a longer version of the footage shows that he was one of many people running away. But that misunderstands the power of the original clip. The image of Hawley’s sprint was not damning simply because he was running from an insurrectionist mob. It was damning because the committee had already shown how Hawley helped to rile up that very mob. The fact that Hawley was one of many people running thus has zero bearing on the senator’s culpability for the attack, or the cravenness of his response to it. All those people wanted to escape the insurrection. Only one of them had egged it on. And the Jan. 6 committee properly brought him into the sharpest focus.
It’s all too easy to imagine a universe in which Republicans won the House of Representatives in 2020 and, rather than investigating Jan. 6, set to work reframing it as a “normal tourist visit.” We would’ve seen countless videos of rioters milling about near-empty hallways, looking lost or confused, eventually making their way out—and been sold the lie that these clips represented the broader story of the day. Democrats would then have had to fight back with more representative footage, creating the impression that there are two legitimate versions of the story, and every American can decide which one to believe. Instead, we got a definitive version of the events, followed by a feeble effort to launch a belated information war. It did not work, and it never will, because the Jan. 6 committee led the country to a verdict that will withstand the scrutiny of evolving public opinion. History will not be kind to the charlatans who seek to subvert its ironclad conclusions.