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Opinion: The January 6 hearings must go on

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

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On September 28, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi has confirmed the January 6 House select committee (which Thompson chairs) will hold its next and possibly final hearing. The details remain unclear other than it won’t be held during primetime.

The chairman has said that “unless something else develops, this hearing at this point is the final hearing. But it’s not in stone because things happen.” Thompson said this week he hopes that they will reach “people in the middle.”

The committee is expected to complete a report by the end of the year and before the next Congress begins. Thompson said that there might be an interim report before the midterms.

But making this the final hearing would be a big mistake. The committee should hold more hearings in October and November, including on primetime, before releasing the final report.

The country desperately needs to learn more about the effort to overturn the 2020 election, and that education needs to take place in a public forum. As the midterm elections approach, and even after they are done, it is essential that the committee keeps this investigation front and center.

At the heart of its findings have been the ways in which the Trump administration, as well as a number of Republican elected officials, partook in an intentional and well-orchestrated effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

If the committee does not continue to hash out its findings on television, it is likely that many voters will move on from this historic story. With the turbulent economy that everyone faces, as well as the raging culture wars that are unfolding on issues like immigration and education, January 6 and the surrounding context could quickly fade.

Some Republican members’ campaign to overturn the legitimate results of an election is not just one story among many – it is the story of our times. Historically speaking, it was unique, without precedent. These radical conservatives did almost everything possible, including stoking mob violence against Congress and the Vice President (a member of the same party), to keep the losing candidate in power.

The fact that it happened should be a massive red flag for the health of our democracy. On this, Democratic and Republican voters should agree. When one party won’t accept defeat, and the responsible party continues to run candidates for office who champion election denialism, including the secretaries of state who will handle these matters in 2024, we all have a big problem on our hands.

In its work thus far, the bipartisan January 6 committee has done an admirable job bringing to the public shocking revelations about the insurrection and helped to put together different pieces of it into a coherent narrative.

This is no easy task in our age of fragmented media consumption and disinformation. Despite all we knew about former President Donald Trump’s efforts to stay in power, with the support of many top Republican officials, the committee showed that January 6 was far more shocking than we first understood.

The committee’s most tangible power has come from the hearings that they have conducted in public. Consulting with former ABC News producer Jack Goldstone, Thompson and his vice chair, soon-to-be former Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, figured out how to make the presentation dramatic, intelligible and coherent for a nation that is used to consuming its information through visual media.

The members of the committee have been deliberate in thinking about how to convey discoveries in ways that are digestible and compelling. Each hearing told a new part of the story and introduced the country to less-known figures from the administration who witnessed the instability that our democracy experienced in those months. Each hearing was not just important for revealing what happened, but also for foregrounding the risks to future elections unless there is reform and accountability.

By exposing the truth, the committee achieved what some of the most effective congressional investigations have been able to do in the past. When we think of why certain congressional committees, such as the Watergate committee in 1973, were so powerful, it is because they were able to force the public to grapple with evidence of wrongdoing at the highest levels of power.

When Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina kept the public riveted to their television screens for over 51 days of “gavel-to-gavel” coverage, they made sure that voters couldn’t turn away from the difficult realities uncovered about how top officials had abused their power.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 21: Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, delivers opening remarks via video due to being positive for COVID-19 in the Cannon House Office Building on July 21, 2022 in Washington, DC. The bipartisan committee, which has been gathering evidence on the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol, is presenting its findings in a series of televised hearings. On January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building during an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for President Joe Biden.

January 6 committee will hold hearing on September 28, chairman says

According to columnist Jack Anderson in July 1973, the hearings, which three out of four American households had on their screen at some point, was “proving a television-viewing phenomenon.” Ervin, according to a wire service, “is well on his way to becoming an authentic American folk hero.”

Of course, televised congressional hearings can also be destructive. They can appeal to sensationalism, and they can become a platform for polemical and partisan warfare. There are many examples, such as the Benghazi hearings in 2015, which have ended up fulfilling the worst fears of what happens when Congress and media converge.

But there are many other moments, such as the Watergate and January 6 committees, where the results have been powerful and benefited the health of the country. These hearings have helped the electorate better understand the inner workings of Washington, they have exposed wrongdoing and the abuse of power, they have made coherent fragments of stories and they have forced the public to reckon with issues that did not directly impact their pocketbooks.

The danger of the January 6 committee’s stopping now is that for better or worse, lengthy committee reports don’t usually get the same kind of attention as televised politics. They get lost in the media frenzy pretty quickly. Many voters, now most comfortable with reading their news on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, won’t have the patience to sort through the material. And as then-Attorney General Bill Barr showed in March 2019 with his summary of the Mueller report, they are much easier to distort by opponents who are savvy at public relations in our current media environment.

Congress can’t let this happen. While the January 6 committee’s role is not to push voters into one partisan camp or the other, Thompson, Cheney and their colleagues have an obligation to do what they can to ensure that when voters cast their ballot this November, they know what they are voting for and what candidates have been willing to do in pursuit of power. When candidates run on election denialism, the public must understand clearly the very real consequences that come from this kind of rhetoric.

We are at a turning point with our democracy. While the campaign to overturn the election failed, the Republicans pursuing this strategy came extraordinarily close to victory – and they engaged in dangerous violence along the way.

This must be on every voter’s mind as they decide what kinds of people they want leading this nation in the future. And after the midterms are over, our elected officials must ensure that voters keep thinking about what happened as the nation begins to turn its attention to the next presidential election.