A Brief History of Televised Congressional Hearings

From a 1951 investigation into organized crime to the Watergate scandal, the ongoing January 6 hearings are part of a lengthy political tradition

Mobster Frank Costello in court
In 1951, mobster Frank Costello (seated, center) testified in front of the Kefauver Committee during a televised congressional hearing on organized crime that captivated the country. Bettmann / Getty Images

A year and a half after some 2,000 supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, a series of televised congressional hearings are revealing new details of the unprecedented attack.

Broadcast on most of the major networks and cable news channels (Fox News opted out), the two-hour opening hearing featured live testimony from a Capitol Police officer who described the January 6, 2021, riot as a “war scene”; pre-recorded interviews with Trump aides and advisers; and visceral, never-before-seen footage from the day of the insurrection.

“I saw officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up,” said officer Caroline Edwards, who sustained a traumatic brain injury during the riot. “I was slipping on people’s blood. It was carnage. It was chaos.”

WATCH LIVE: Jan. 6 Committee hearings - Day 1

Perhaps the most expertly produced prime-time hearings broadcast to date, the January 6 proceedings are part of a lengthy American political tradition. From the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings to the 1973 Watergate hearings, televised hearings have transfixed the nation for decades, offering the public a rare glimpse behind the congressional curtain.

Television didn’t invent “the congressional hearing or [become] the first to take advantage of its essential theatricality,” wrote broadcaster Reuven Frank in the 1997 book Covering Congress. But the medium opened up a new world where “the theater was always open, the audience always receptive, the press always in attendance.”

According to an online House of Representatives exhibition, the first live television broadcast of a congressional proceeding took place on January 3, 1947, during the opening of the 80th Congress. Due to “costliness and an unwillingness by members of Congress to have their [discussions] recorded,” wrote Jackie Mansky for Smithsonian magazine in 2017, the 1947 broadcast proved to be an anomaly, with regularly televised proceedings only becoming the norm in 1977.

Despite the legislative body’s overall resistance to television, individual congressional committees could—and did—broadcast their own hearings. The first to capture a broad swath of Americans’ attention took place in 1951, when the Kefauver Committee investigated organized crime. Embarking on a national tour of local courtrooms, Senator Estes T. Kefauver subpoenaed mobsters, corrupt law enforcement officers, gamblers and other witnesses. An estimated 30 million people watched the live proceedings, eagerly following the cinematic black-and-white footage of criminals “under duress,” per the Senate Historical Office.

Frank Costello in court
Frank Costello in court Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Frank Costello, an Italian crime boss based in New York, initially refused to testify but agreed to speak if the camera focused on his hands rather than his face. “Actually,” reported the Newsday newspaper on March 14, 1951, “they were more character-revealing than his expressionless face,” twitching nervously as the mobster reached for a glass of water or mopped his brow with a handkerchief. Another star of the Kefauver hearings was Virginia Hill, the former girlfriend of gangster Bugsy Siegel. According to the Mob Museum, she showed up at the courthouse in a $5,000 mink cape and silk gloves, denied all knowledge of criminal activity, and slapped a woman reporter in the face on her way out of the proceedings.

A similarly captivating set of hearings aired in the spring of 1954. Known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, the proceedings pitted Joseph R. McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator known for his zealous hunt for communists, against the U.S. Army, which had accused the controversial politician of seeking preferential treatment for an aide. McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy M. Cohn, in turn charged the Army with harboring communists within its ranks.

"Have You No Decency?" | McCarthy | American Experience | PBS

Across 36 days of hearings, 188 hours of which were broadcast live, a “boorish McCarthy and a bleary-eyed Cohn [faced off] against a coolly avuncular Joseph N. Welch,” the Army’s special counsel, notes Thomas Doherty for the Television Academy Foundation. In a June 9, 1954, exchange with McCarthy, Welch famously declared, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness. … Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Seen by some 27 million Americans, the hearings marked the beginning of McCarthy’s fall from grace. “What happened was that television, whose coverage of McCarthy’s news conferences and addresses to the nation had earlier lent him legitimacy and power, had now precipitated his downfall,” writes Doherty. Censured by the Senate and ostracized by his peers, McCarthy died of unknown causes—likely linked to alcoholism—in 1957. (Cohn, meanwhile, would later mentor a young Donald Trump in the 1970s and ’80s.)

Perhaps the most readily apparent counterpart to the January 6 investigation is the Watergate hearings of 1973, which unraveled the scandal surrounding a June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Though the proceedings got off to a slow start, the drama picked up as witnesses revealed the extent of President Richard M. Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up.

“The Senate Watergate investigation is proving a television-viewing phenomenon,” wrote columnist Jack Anderson in July 1973, following a former White House aide’s disclosure that Nixon had recorded secret tapes of his conversations with staff, government officials and family members. According to A.C. Nielsen, the company behind Nielsen TV ratings, an estimated three out of four American households tuned in to the hearings at one point or another.

A Look Back at the Senate Watergate Hearings

“The drama-filled inquiry outdrew popular daytime soap operas,” writes Ronald G. Shafer for the Washington Post. One Chicago woman reportedly told a friend, “I’ve gotta hurry home and watch the Senate investigation on TV. It’s more fun than an X-rated movie.”

In 1974, the House—anticipating an impeachment trial for Nixon—authorized broadcast coverage of floor debate for the first time. (Previously, live broadcasts had been limited to individual committee hearings.) Though Nixon resigned before an impeachment trial could take place, his actions inadvertently cemented television’s ascension as the go-to medium for political intrigue.

House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill authorized a three-month testing period for closed-circuit television coverage in March 1977; C-SPAN, the nonprofit network that broadcasts live footage of many congressional proceedings, debuted soon thereafter, in March 1979, paving the way for such headline-making events as the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings and the January 6 ones taking place today.

“What America and the world saw in 1974 was the most powerful man in the world lose his job,” says historian Timothy Naftali, the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in the CNN documentary series “Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal.” “And for anyone who doubted the strength of the U.S. Constitution, what they witnessed [during the Watergate hearings] removed those doubts.”

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