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The Trump-CNN Town Hall Was Useful and Appropriate
And you'd better get used to seeing Trump on TV like this
As you’re likely aware, CNN held a town-hall forum with Donald Trump last night, and people have opinions about it.
The forum was structured in an analogous way to how Democratic candidates’ primary-season town halls worked in 2020: which is to say, those were in front of an audience of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, eager to hear the sorts of base-pleasing messages that define a primary campaign. We can argue about the best ways to cover political candidates, but I see value in these formats. The people in the audiences are representative of the people who will vote in primary elections, so their attitudes are relevant, and when they ask questions they actually tend to be more focused on policy (less on horserace matters or scandal) than reporters are.
Now, Republicans are having a presidential primary campaign of their own. Should TV networks conduct the same kind of town-hall events with them, and if not, why not?
Judging by the outrage at CNN over last night’s town hall from certain quarters, a lot of people think the answer is “no,” at least as regards Trump. The complaints are that Trump lies too much, and therefore broadcasting him live will tend to misinform voters; or that he is too vicious and nasty; or that the audience is too vicious and nasty, cheering him on and making his shtick look popular and effective. I see a lot of demands that Trump should only be broadcast in edited, “contextualized” packages, where a journalist gets the last word, thus ensuring that viewers are told what to believe and what not to believe.
I disagree. I don’t think it’s the proper role of a news network to decide that one party’s electorate is mature or moral enough for a live town hall with its leading candidate and the other isn’t — at least if that news network aims, as CNN does, to be a news source for people across a broad ideological spectrum. Trump is the frontrunner candidate for the Republican nomination. The ways in which he appeals to that electorate are news, and indeed we got a lot of news out of the town hall, from his pledge to pardon many of the January 6 rioters to his repeated refusal to commit to a position on federal abortion policy. If you’re going to do town halls, it’s obvious he should get one in the format the other candidates do.
I also think the fetish for “contextualizing” Trump somewhat misconstrues the news media’s proper role as a fact checker. News outlets should say when politicians are lying — and CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins cut in repeatedly to point out that Trump’s claims about the stolen election are false — but they can’t force anyone to know the truth. At some point, you’ve said enough times that the election wasn’t stolen, and if voters are going to believe it was anyway, that’s up to them. I think the media has very often gotten heavy-handed in this area in recent years — using the guise of “context” to go beyond facts and tell viewers how they should feel — so it’s important to let go of control-freak instincts and understand that your audience may not always come away convinced of what you’d wish.
All of which is to say I think CNN president Chris Licht’s defense of the town hall, as reported in Semafor, is basically correct:
“There is so much that we learned last night about what a second Trump presidency would look like,” he said, saying the network held him accountable “in a way that no news organization has done literally in years.”
Licht added 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.”
“The mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists,” Licht said. “So the idea of doing so, I believe, is an overcorrection of the days when we gave him unfettered rally coverage and showed podiums.”
I think a lot of liberals look at programming like this, see that Donald Trump is enjoying himself, and therefore decide that it’s bad, i.e. he shouldn’t be happy, and he shouldn’t have television appearances that make his advisors happy; if Trump is happy, this must be helping him win.
Well, I think the electoral results we saw in 2022 from candidates like Kari Lake suggest raging about election theft and turning the media into your opponent are recipes for underperforming a generic Republican candidate. (This is probably why the town hall gave so many Republican establishment viewers heartburn.) I think there’s something a little weird about understanding that Trump is off-putting to a majority of general election voters and not wanting him laid bare on national television. I think Jon Lovett has this right in his sanguine take: “Just because the audience was made up of his base, and they laugh and jeer like assholes, why does that mean the anchor is ‘humiliated’ — why can WE see what it is but some unseen audience can't?”
But in any case, it’s not CNN’s job to concern themselves with whether programming makes Trump more or less likely to be elected. That’s not how they’d think about the decision to host any other presidential candidate for a town hall.
A big part of how the media has gotten itself into such a mess over the last few years has been by treating Trump as special, and allowing itself to be drawn into a role as a political opponent in a way that media outlets do not with other politicians. Organizations have literally changed their editorial standards for Trump, opining in headlines about whether his comments are racist in a way they would not have in the past. And to what end? What has this achieved, other than convincing Republican readers that news outlets are an oppositional force, constantly inserting their value judgments into news stories, and not trustworthy on questions of fact?
For years, CNN had been one of the worst offenders in this regard, with even its White House correspondent Jim Acosta turning into a preening member of the #resistance. As Licht says, the network overcorrected from 2015 and 2016, when it allowed Trump too much rally airtime with no context from a moderator at all. But I think this town hall is reflective of a move toward a better balance. That balance — doing adversarial questioning without letting yourself be made into the adversary — is hard to strike in general, and especially when the politician being questioned is Trump. But treating him more like you would any other politician is a step in the right direction, and that includes having events like this town hall.
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