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Home » Lessons emerge as the dust settles on CNN’s Trump town hall

Lessons emerge as the dust settles on CNN’s Trump town hall

In recent days, the fallout has continued from last Wednesday’s lie-filled CNN town hall with Donald Trump. On Friday, The Guardian’s Hugo Lowell reported that Trump agreed to appear on the network after it pledged to book more of his surrogates as on-air guests—a claim that CNN denied—and that Chris Licht, the network’s CEO, told Trump to “have fun” before he went on stage. Meanwhile, Puck’s Dylan Byers reported that Licht summoned Oliver Darcy—CNN’s media reporter, who wrote in his newsletter the morning after the town hall that “it’s hard to see how America was served” by such a “spectacle of lies”—and scolded him for being overly emotional. Last night, Semafor reported, citing two anonymous sources, that Darcy was “not pleased with the depiction of the meeting”—which, per the sources, ended “relatively cordially,” with Licht backing Darcy—but that “in the aftermath of the meeting and coverage, Darcy has wondered to colleagues whether he should resign or if he will be fired by the network.”

Alongside this new reporting, a gusher of hot takes about the town hall continued to pour forth. Platforming Trump was irresponsible given the lies he was always likely to spew at the town hall. Actually, you can’t just wish Trump away, and the town hall was an invaluable chance to ask him tough questions and/or remind everyone of the danger he poses. Platforming Trump was not in itself irresponsible, but the format was. The town hall was exhibit A for the claim that Licht is trying to move CNN to the right (or at least to the center) and for the claim that John Malone—a key stakeholder in CNN’s parent company, who has held up Fox News as a model of good journalismis getting his way. Actually, the town hall reflected a symbiosis between Trump and CNN that long predates Licht and Malone. Actually, the important takeaway isn’t about Trump’s relationship with CNN at all, but his all-out war on the concept of truth itself.

It’s hard to remember a single media event—one actually organized by a news organization, at any rate—generating this much noise in quite a while; as Jeremy Barr, a media reporter at the Washington Post, put it after the town hall, “The 2024 media reporting cycle has officially kicked off.” Amid all the noise, it’s been hard to pick out much of a signal—not least because so much of the noise has clung to the question of whether or not it’s a good idea to platform Trump.

This is a real debate that observers have been having for a long time now, and one that we’ve covered often at CJR. But it has often been a circular debate, as Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote in this newsletter last week. And, in the case of the town hall specifically, it is a debate that has often been oversimplified, at times becoming something of a straw man for those who would swipe at the supposed censorious instincts of liberal media-watchers. On one level, the debate has been “artificially constricted,” as the historian Michael J. Socolow wrote for Slate, because there are better and worse ways of platforming Trump. On another level, the town hall and the debate around it invite much broader questions about the structures of political coverage, and—to borrow from Darcy—whether or not they serve America. As the dust starts to settle on the event, it’s worth considering these, and how to apply their lessons going forward.

To start on the first level, the town-hall format did not serve anyone very well at all (save, perhaps, for Trump). Kaitlan Collins, the moderator, joined the long list of TV journalists who have found that it’s impossible to adequately rebut his lies in real time due to their mind-bending depth and volume. Even many critics of the town hall lauded Collins for trying her best. To my mind, she actually let a lot slide that she could have challenged; she could, for example, have pinned Trump down on one specific lie and refused to let it go, a style of interviewing that isn’t common in the US—where political sitdowns tend to privilege superficial breadth over granular depth—but is well-established in countries such as the UK, as I wrote in 2021. But Collins was constrained in two key respects. The town hall was broadcast live; as Socolow and others have noted, some sort of pre-recorded format might have allowed CNN to add factual context to Trump’s claims. And the town hall was, well, a town hall. The organizing principle seemed to be for Collins to hold Trump to account while also getting out of the way to let voters ask questions. That’s a hard balance to strike, not least when the person on stage says so many things that demand accountability. Collins wound up playing a weird hybrid of interviewer and compère.

The town-hall format was also criticized for the composition of its audience, which at least sounded like it was stacked with Trump fans cheering and laughing along with his every indiscretion. In comments to CNN staffers the morning after the event, Licht reportedly said that “while we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story, because the people in that audience represent a large swath of America, and the mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist.” This was absurd. Trump fans may once have been overlooked, but it’s hard to think, these days, of a more over-covered group of voters relative to their strength in the population; one could make a more compelling case that Trump voters remain poorly understood by many higher-ups in elite newsrooms—or that they are too often covered as an anthropological curiosity—but the answer to that is better coverage, particularly at the local level, not giving Trump fans free tickets to a live laugh-along. According to reports, there were Trump skeptics in the town-hall audience, too, but they were drowned out—an exquisitely on-the-nose metaphor for the wider media tendency to cover the loudest voices the most. Clapping is not a useful gauge of national representation.

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The town-hall format can be useful—in theory at least, it’s valuable for voters to get facetime with their would-be representatives so they can ask about issues that matter to them. But the format was ultimately wrong for this event, with this candidate, at this time. There was always a high risk that Trump and his supporters would game the format—a risk not worth taking given the high stakes of Trump’s extreme anti-democracy politics. While CNN sought (sort of) to frame the event as the sort of thing it would put on for any presidential candidate, Trump is not just any presidential candidate. At the very least, the spotlight on the event was always going to be unusually bright given CNN and Trump’s past adversarial relationship, and the fact that he hadn’t sat down on the network in a long time. His return to its airwaves demanded a tough, pre-recorded, one-on-one interview, not a confused mess of combustible journalistic elements.

This is where supporters of the event might argue that I’m trying to play favorites, or shut down a staple of campaign coverage, or—from a different vantage—put my fingers in my ears to the danger of Trump when sunlight is the best disinfectant. Licht said in his comments to staff that “people woke up, and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before.” But this doesn’t hold water either. The stakes of Trump and his movement have long been abundantly clear, and to my ear, he said nothing new or surprising at the town hall beyond rehashing old grievances. Licht reportedly told staff that the event “made news.” But that is not the same thing as covering the news. To the extent that Licht was right, CNN made news more about itself than Trump. You can judge for yourself whether this served America well.

This all points to a deeper fallacy that has often seemed to be latent in the argument that CNN was right to platform Trump and that it’s censorious to say otherwise, one that regularly echoes through debates about speech in the media—the implied idea that once a platform has been devised and offered to a given person, then that particular platform stands in for the notion of all platforms. “The argument that the media should ignore Trump and keep him under a bushel basket is ridiculous,” Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times over the weekend. “You can’t extinguish Trump by not talking to him. He’s always going to find a platform.” But this is precisely the point—in a pluralistic democracy, with a rich diversity of media sources, Trump has no shortage of ways to reach the public; if anything, the press in America covers him too much. He does not have a Constitutional right to appear on CNN at all, let alone surrounded by fawning fans. I happen to agree that interviewing Trump is a defensible choice, depending on the format. But it is a choice. Free speech does not live or die according to who makes it onto CNN’s airwaves, or those of any other broadcaster—at least, not in isolation. To think otherwise is to indulge a form of arrogance about any one outlet’s centrality to the national conversation.

Indeed, there are good arguments against holding a town hall with Trump in May 2023 that have little to do with oversimplified debates about who should and shouldn’t get a platform. One, as I’ve remarked before in this newsletter, is that the next presidential election is still a year and a half away—even the primaries don’t start ‘til next year—and that the incumbent president still has almost half his term left and many crucial challenges staring him in the face. A pluralistic press, of course, can cover multiple stories at once. But few countries’ media cover national elections on such a permanent war footing as the US political press corps. And—while the debate as to how to cover Trump is legitimate, and an ongoing concern—the bubble of outrage generated by this specific news cycle feels like a contrived distraction, and an indulgence.

This is no small part because the town hall itself came across as contrived: as less about informing voters than CNN gesturing to a subset of the political elite about a step change in its values since Licht took over from Jeff Zucker, his predecessor, last year and communicated a break from the network’s antagonistic Trump-era bluster. I wrote at the time that less bluster—in favor of more reporting—would be welcome, but that early indicators as to the type of coverage bosses consider antagonistic did not bode well, and that CNN’s valuable, hard-hitting journalism on the political right could suffer. The town hall was another poor indicator—and ironically, drowned CNN and the rest of us in an ocean of bluster. It’s not overly emotional to point that out.

Other notable stories:

  • Earlier today, Vice Media filed for bankruptcy, “punctuating,” as the Times put it, “a yearslong descent from a new-media darling to a cautionary tale of the problems facing the digital publishing industry.” Per the Times, a group of creditors, including Fortress Investment Group and Soros Fund Management, have already moved to buy Vice out of bankruptcy, and operations at Vice properties will continue in the meantime.
  • Late last week, Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter, announced that he is replacing himself as CEO of the company with Linda Yaccarino, a top advertising executive at NBCUniversal; Musk said that Yaccarino will focus on business decisions while he will focus on product design and tech. Semafor’s Max Tani has a profile of Yaccarino, pointing out that at NBC, she warned advertisers to stay away from social media.
  • Recently, the state legislature in Hawai‘i passed a bill that would establish a shield law for journalists working there, protecting members of the press against official legal demands that they identify confidential sources or hand over unpublished notes. Hawai‘i instituted a shield law in 2008 but it expired in 2013, making it one of only two states (the other being Wyoming) not to have one. Civil Beat’s Elizabeth Gault has more details
  • In international press-freedom news, El Periódico, an independent news site in Guatemala, is shutting down as its founder faces trial on what press-watchers have described as dubious charges. Elsewhere, authorities and protesters in Pakistan have attacked and harassed journalists amid the political turmoil that followed the arrest of Imran Khan last week, with some Khan supporters ransacking public-media offices.
  • And, in the latest of a series of articles that CJR is running on the theme of journalistic “objectivity,” A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, weighs in on what he sees as journalism’s essential value: its independence. This value, he writes, “is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else.” 

New from CJR: Journalism’s Essential Value

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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