In the years since Donald Trump first descended the escalator at his eponymous tower to rail against Mexicans while launching his campaign for president, he has shown himself to be a liar, a sociopath, a bigot, and a demagogue. He was impeached twice, criminally indicted, and found liable in civil court for sexually abusing an advice columnist in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room. He fostered a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol after lying about the results of the 2020 presidential election, continues to lie about the outcome of said election, and is being criminally investigated in Georgia on charges related to his efforts to overturn said election. He hoarded classified documents at his Florida home and ignored subpoenas to return them. He has a history of coddling and emulating dictators around the world. He lies as easily as he breathes, about pretty much everything.
He also happens to be the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and that fact was all it took for CNN to ignore literally everything else and give Trump a full hour live Wednesday night as part of a breathtakingly ill-conceived “town hall” with New Hampshire voters. The discussion, moderated poorly by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, was simultaneously a triggering flashback to the bad old days of Trump’s presidency, a frustrating preview of what we can likely expect over the next 18 months, and a conclusive repudiation of CNN CEO Chris Licht’s doomed plan to restore the network’s fortunes by tacking to the imagined middle.
Licht, who took the reins at CNN last year, has marked his tenure by bouncing many of the network’s most vocal Trump critics while handing shows to people such as Gayle King and Charles Barkley. He is clearly trying to restore the network’s down-the-middle reputation and win back Republican viewers. I have written before about why I think that this is a bad strategy, even if I get what he’s going for. Licht seems to be under the mistaken impression that what viewers want and America needs right now is a cable news network oriented around presenting a “balance” between the left and the right, something that requires pretending that today’s Republican Party is basically normal. The only people served by this strategy are the ambitious maniacs in the right’s electoral vanguard, and the cowards and cynics who have chosen to countenance proto-fascism as a fair trade for lower taxes. The rest of us are reduced to screaming into our sofa cushions as we flash back to that escalator in 2015, and the credulous media coverage that kick-started our apparently still-ongoing national nightmare.
I suppose it isn’t entirely fair to blame CNN for the political rise of Donald Trump. Yes, when the businessman first announced his candidacy, he benefited from a disproportionate amount of coverage from CNN, courtesy of the network’s then-president Jeff Zucker, who had previously greenlit The Apprentice during his time at NBC. Zucker correctly saw Trump as a ratings magnet, and CNN evidently saw no harm in exploiting a stunt candidacy that seemed likely to go down in history as a joke. For months, it aired Trump’s rallies at length. As Margaret Sullivan noted in the Washington Post last year, the network sometimes even “broadcast images of an empty lectern with embarrassing chyrons such as ‘Breaking News: Standing By for Trump to Speak.’ ”
The joke was on CNN, though: Trump’s malignant message resonated with a whole lot of American voters, and by the time that Zucker and CNN realized the danger that Trump posed, it was too late to constrain him. While Trump’s message likely would have resonated with or without CNN’s help, the network did indeed go out of its way to amplify it. But so did a lot of other news outlets, most of which expected Trump to eventually fade away like every other stunt candidate in American history before him. It is hard to see the black swan coming, and it wasn’t entirely these outlets’ fault that they didn’t know any better.
The mainstream media sure as shit knows better now, though, which is what makes CNN’s decision to air Wednesday night’s town hall so very indefensible. The best journalistic argument for the town hall would be something like this: Like it or not, Trump is currently leading the 2024 Republican presidential field by a wide margin, and his campaign isn’t something that reporters can just ignore. By putting him on the air and subjecting him to hard questions and journalistic scrutiny—by directly addressing all of the many ways in which he is unfit to reclaim the presidency—CNN might do the nation and its voters a service, while making some news along the way.
But that’s not how the town hall went, and frankly, that’s not how it was ever going to go. Live television is Trump’s bailiwick. His charisma shines through in unscripted, unedited settings, especially in a friendly room, as does his skill at running out the clock. Over the course of the hour, Trump consistently deflected Collins’ dogged albeit ineffective attempts to pin him down on his many disqualifying factors; lied openly and consistently about the 2020 election results and dozens of other things; made Tuesday’s $5 million verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case into a joke at the victim’s expense; and showed absolutely no remorse for anything he had ever said or done in his entire life.
At times, the hour was reminiscent of hearing a legacy rock band churning through its greatest hits for an audience of entitled boomers. Trump bragged about the “perfect” call to Zelensky and announced that Nancy Pelosi was “crazy.” Though Collins came prepared, she was ultimately defenseless against Trump’s dark talents for ignoring or belittling people he deems less important than him, which is everybody. She’d try to get him to answer a specific question. He’d ignore her and talk about some bullshit. She’d interject with a hapless “But Mr. President …” He’d ignore her again, and then she’d move on. “The election was not rigged, Mr. President. You can’t keep saying that,” Collins said at one point, and then Trump kept right on saying that. At one point, Trump called Collins “a nasty person.” The audience cheered. Collins tried her best, but her best was nowhere near good enough.
That said, it’s CNN’s fault for putting her in a position to fail in the first place. Absolutely every single moment of this debacle was predictable, and it is enraging to see CNN making the exact same mistakes it made when Trump first entered into the public sphere eight years ago. The network gave a seditious would-be despot carte blanche to openly lie on live television for an hour, in front of an adoring crowd, with ineffective pushback from a reporter who, if Wednesday night is any indication, is nowhere near ready for prime time. The pregame chatter among CNN’s vacuous panelists, meanwhile, used the same empty framing that has long made the term “talking heads” a pejorative. “What does Trump need to accomplish at this town hall?” Wolf Blitzer asked just before the town hall began.
“He does need to remind New Hampshire voters, who are very important, that he’s presidential, and that he has a command over things,” said CNN’s Jeff Zeleny. This isn’t interesting analysis, or relevant journalism, or anything except blinkered horse-race chitchat impelled by ratings-minded C-suite cynicism. For all of Licht’s ostensible desire to restore CNN’s reputation as the most trusted name in television news, the only reason to gift Donald Trump with a risible “town hall” a full 18 months before the election is to kick Fox News when it’s down while trying to steal back some of the weeknight ratings that Fox has been hoarding for years.
I’m no fan of Fox News, to put it mildly—but at least Fox News knows what it is and what its viewers want it to be. I’m not sure that CNN can say that anymore. During the course of the town hall, I saw some people suggest on Twitter that Licht ought to resign for his role in putting it on the air. If Wednesday night’s train wreck is a preview of how CNN under Licht is going to cover the 2024 elections, then for the good of the country, he should.