“I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night,” CNN CEO Chris Licht reportedly told his employees Thursday morning. In lauding his network’s airing of a live town hall with Donald Trump, Licht pushed past simply defending his programming decision or commending the journalist tasked with moderating the event. He claimed that airing numerous provably false and misleading statements by a leading contender for the presidency in 2024 comprised a public service to the nation. His comments implicitly challenged those who argued that handing Donald Trump a live TV show harmed American democracy—including those employed by his own network.
Before the town hall aired, the central issue being debated was simple: Would it be in the public interest to allow Donald Trump a live TV opportunity knowing his established propensity to lie, defame, mislead, and insult? This issue can also be phrased as the ethics and morality of “platforming” the former president.
There’s only one problem with the debate: It’s artificially constricted. The question of whether to “platform” or “not platform” Donald Trump is actually a false dichotomy. There exist alternatives to the two options, and some have even been previously employed successfully.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, live TV interviews will always favor those who prefer mendacity. This is what scholars term an “affordance” of the medium. It’s not that a savvy and persistent interviewer—think Ted Koppel in his prime—will never be able to effectively counter lies, but that the format’s structure significantly favors distribution of unproven allegations (and even falsehoods) over interjected corrections. As long as Trump’s town hall was going to be aired live, Trump knew he would “win” it.
This characteristic of live TV is no secret. Everyone in the business already knows it, and it explains why so many critics, scholars, and TV personnel warned against the program before it aired.
But those arguing for or against the program both took it for granted that the only possible format was live TV. Other options were always available to CNN, and they should have been publicly proposed, considered, and discussed. Unfortunately for us, they weren’t.
One example: There was nothing stopping CNN from livestreaming last night’s town hall solely on CNN.com. If it were, the viewers most invested in the live experience could elect to watch the livestream video, and then CNN could have aired a produced version, with edits and a narrative track, in the format of a 60 Minutes-style package immediately following. Two distinct modes of journalism for two separate audiences was always an option. Taking this route would have allowed CNN to avoid charges of bias—anybody could access the event live on the web if they preferred—while still allowing for CNN to act more journalistically responsible. Had CNN+, the organization’s shelved streamer service, still existed, the cable network might even have sold a lot of subscriptions with the program, too.
That’s but one example of a better alternative than what occurred Wednesday night. There exist others. A strange amnesia about the ethical and professional interviews conducted with Donald Trump over the last few years seems to have arisen. CNN’s Chris Wallace interviewed him in 2020 on Fox News, and the veteran journalist conducted a fine interrogation. When Lesley Stahl interviewed Trump for 60 Minutes in 2020 her disciplined interviewing skills proved too much for him, and he walked out. Perhaps best of all, when Jonathan Swan imported the Australian version of TV interviewing—where nonsense is often quickly dismissed, and exchanges are generally less deferential and more confrontational—for Axios, it went massively viral.
What unites these three successful platformings of Donald Trump? They were all taped on video for later broadcast. Yet for all that Trump and his acolytes complained about this, the interviewers agreed to allow Trump’s team to film the interviews. Thus, in each case, the White House proved able to produce and distribute its own version of what occurred to counter the television production.
This seems to be the most fair and ethical model for platforming Donald Trump. News media shouldn’t turn over their live microphones and airwaves to him, but, rather, interview him while allowing his team to bring any video production tech he feels he needs to protect himself.
Those are but two ways to handle the platform conundrum. There undoubtedly exist others. We should discuss additional alternatives to locate the best methods and models to simultaneously serve democracy while acting responsibly. To debate whether “to platform” or “not platform” with live TV interviewing as the sole “platform” is not only limited, it’s also a framing that facilitates superficial rhetorical claims on both sides. The “to platform” side can justify their position by pointing to audience interest and civic “free speech” arguments, while the “no platform” side can claim their position protects democracy from an existential authoritarian threat. Both sides make persuasive claims rooted in American values—but that leaves us at a standstill. So the debate has to move beyond them.
That’s why we need alternatives, especially as Trump’s 2024 candidacy brings urgency to the issue. Now that we know what occurred live on CNN on the evening of May 10, 2023, the network TV executives responsible for journalistic production can no longer plausibly claim ignorance when dealing with the former president on their airwaves. This isn’t 2015, and it’s not even 2020. Those executives now have a record compiled over almost a decade showing TV’s best practices—and its failures.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Wednesday’s town hall was that, once again, it spotlighted the limitations of the medium. Television will always fool us. When we watch TV, the images and audio radiating out from the screen shape our perceptions. The feeling is so immersive that we believe others must be viewing the same things we see. But since the 1960s, we’ve known this isn’t true. Television is one medium, but it’s not the only one involved. We forget just how much each of us, as viewers, mediate the television experience. We’re all watching collectively, but we’re experiencing it individually.
Television, in this sense, remains our national Rorschach test. The reaction to Wednesday’s town hall reveals how although we might live in the same towns and watch the same TV programs, we might arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions from what we see. In this sense, live political broadcasts—whether debates, interviews, or rallies—are useful for revealing and exposing truths about TV, and us, that we would prefer to hide, as Licht implied in his comments Thursday. Yet we know that when it comes to informing a democratic citizenry with accurate and verified information, we can do better. And we should.