CNN faces backlash its town hall featuring former President Donald Trump, an event that quickly turned chaotic in a brutal show of tightrope in the face of reporters covering a top Republican candidate in 2024 who refuses to play by the rules.
Wednesday’s town hall was the first major televised event of the 2024 presidential campaign, and CNN defended its decision to hold it as a chance to put Trump in front of a wider audience, outside of the conservative media bubble he has. largely preserved from the beginning. in his presidency.
Critics said the event, which was staged in front of Republicans and unaffiliated voters who were due to vote in the GOP primary, instead turned into a Trump campaign rally and allowed him to repeating longstanding lies while dodging difficult questions
Tom Jones, senior writer at the Poynter Media Research Institute, said he favors the idea of CNN hosting the town hall for St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. But he said he was surprised by the behavior of the audience, which he expected to be more neutral.
Instead, the crowd gave Trump a standing ovation when he took the stage, applauded some of his more provocative comments and laughed off many of his jokes, including when he criticized E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who accused him of raping her in 1996 and this week won a $5 million judgment against him.
Jones said the atmosphere set CNN moderator Kaitlan Collinsin a nearly impossible position as she tried to elicit direct answers from Trump and verify his comments on the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by his supporters and the 2020 election, which he still wrongly insists on his victory.
“Every time she could have cornered it, it was built by the audience,” Jones said. “It just emboldened him. He realized, ‘I can do or say anything I want,’ and she got steamrolled in that moment through no fault of hers. It was her against the whole room.
The event was indicative of the new era of leadership at CNN and management’s efforts to re-attract viewers who have turned to Fox News and other conservative media over the past decade.
In a Thursday morning meeting with CNN, Chairman and CEO Chris Licht praised Collins’ “masterful performance,” saying she was asking tough questions under difficult circumstances.
“If anyone was going to ask tough questions and have this messy conversation, it should be on CNN,” he said in a recording of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.
He also defended the decision to hold town hall in front of a pro-Trump crowd.
“While we were all uncomfortable hearing people applaud, it was also an important part of the story, because the people in that audience represent a big part of America,” Licht said. . “And the mistake the media has made in the past is ignoring that these people exist. Just like you can’t ignore that President Trump exists.
The event expanded CNN’s audience, at least for one night. Nielson said the town hall averaged 3.3 million viewers, compared to 707,000 who tuned in to CNN during the same timeslot the previous night.
But Jones said he was skeptical that town hall would help CNN’s reputation in the long run, given the backlash. He noted that most of the network’s post-event comments were highly critical of Trump, likely alienating conservative viewers who had tuned in just to watch the former president.
Nick Arama, a writer for the conservative website RedState.com, criticized CNN’s Gary Tuchman, who spoke to some members of the public after Trump’s appearance, saying “he didn’t act as much of a moderator trying to get their opinion as a democrat. propagandist trying to impose his own opinion on them”.
Meanwhile, critics on the left were ruthless, saying CNN should have predicted how chaotic the event would be.
“CNN should be ashamed of themselves. They lost complete control of this ‘town hall’ only to be manipulated again into the election misinformation platform, the January 6 defenses and a public attack on a victim of sexual abuse. The public cheers for it and mocks the host,” said Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. wrote in a tweet.
Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief now at George Washington University, said the event was a harbinger of the tough coverage decisions “that every news agency has to wrestle with because Donald Trump doesn’t is not a normal candidate”.
“You can’t ignore it, but you can’t give it carte blanche either,” he said.
A one-on-one interview would have been preferable, although whether Trump would have agreed to that is a different matter, said Sesno, who added that he saw value in allowing Trump to speak to a wider audience, including many people who might have mostly ignored it in recent years.
Sesno noted that while Trump supporters rejoiced at his performance, Republican critics, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, seized on him to raise concerns about the former president’s ability. to win a national election.
“As chaotic and strange as the event was, as a journalist I think it’s important for people to see this,” he said.