On Thursday night, ABC News broadcast an hourlong “town hall” meeting with President Obama to address a recent wave of shooting tragedies that include the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as well as of five police officers in Dallas. The broadcast was well-intentioned in the extreme, and though the production was heavily stage-managed by ABC News, anchor David Muir took a backseat to the President and citizens.
But that was the broadcast’s problem: The town hall format, beholden to its participants’ whim rather than a guiding vision, was neither effective news nor opinion programming. It was a strange, and somewhat troubling, new vanguard for TV news—a program that bore all the hallmarks of holding a politician “accountable,” but seemed unclear on what exactly he was meant to be held accountable for.
Questions ranged from deceptively simple in their framing—Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of the late Philando Castile, asked, plainly, how to stop gun violence—to ones purposefully intended to trip Obama up. Texas’s Lieutenant Governor strongly implied the President doesn’t support police officers, a charge almost shocking to be leveled against the Commander-in-Chief on live television. But the broadcast perpetually put forward moments of real fear and real tension only to let the air slowly leak out without an answer. President Obama, who’s very effectively used entertainment programming to convey bite-sized messages throughout his presidency, was contemplative and far too prolix for the hourlong time slot.
Understandable: He was walking a tightrope of sorts in a room comprised both of police officers and their families as well as families touched by police violence against African-Americans. Nothing he said was going to please everyone. And yet Obama’s answers were so coolly cerebral in the face of audience members’ high passions that they seemed almost to be beamed in from another broadcast. It seemed meant to reassure—the President at one point called himself “Mr. Hope.” And yet the town hall format, forcing conversation with regular people, seemed ill-chosen for a President who, when dealing with serious matters, builds elaborate rhetorical bridges. ABC had chosen people most deeply touched by gun violence or by anti-police sentiment and allowed them to speak freely; the President’s rigorous thinking-through of issues was, on TV, no equal.
Town hall broadcasts, in which journalists effectively act as moderators for audiences granted latitude to speak freely, have gained currency in the current presidential election cycle; cable news networks have discovered they’re a very easy way to get politicians to agree to go on their air. And no wonder: In the main, they allow politicians who are wary of granting meaningful or probing access to speak freely to the American people. It’s airtime ungoverned by follow-up questions.
But being unsure of which candidate gets your vote, as most town hall attendees are, is different from being frightened of losing your life at a traffic stop or while walking the beat; the questions get tougher and aren’t framed in explicable policy terms. The ABC News town hall seemed calculated to allow Obama a chance to assuage his audience’s fears, but it was, perhaps, a chasm too deep to cross. The questions were no less angry and insistent at the end than they were at the beginning, but for the broadcast’s final, deeply calculated moments, in which a young boy whose mother protected him during the Dallas shootings told the President he wants to be a police officer when he grows up. It was a benediction that the President, in a web of words that didn’t fit the audience’s grim mood, couldn’t himself provide.