If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already heard the key sound bites from Wednesday’s CNN town hall with Donald Trump. You know that the former president used his platform to not only repeat the same false statements about his accuser E. Jean Carroll that convinced a jury this week to hold him liable for defamation as well as sexual abuse, but also describe Carroll as a “wack job.” You know he wouldn’t rule out reimplementing his family separation policy at the border. You know that he delivered a full set of his greatest hits, from “Crazy Nancy” and “they will kill the baby in the ninth month” to his false insistence that the 2020 election was rigged and intention to pardon many Jan. 6 insurrectionists should he return to the White House.
Maybe you also observed, or read about, moderator Kaitlan Collins’ repeated attempts to fact-check or otherwise push back against many of the above statements. I say “many” because as the night wore on, Collins, a former White House correspondent and co-host of CNN This Morning, allowed more and more fabrications—including the one about abortion-rights supporters’ views on post-viability terminations—to go unchallenged. On one hand, who could blame her? The man lies, evades, and launches ad hominem attacks at a pace few could match. (Eventually, he turned on Collins: “You’re a nasty person,” he told her. “You don’t know the subject.”) On the other hand, well, why would the decision-makers at a mainstream news organization that had the examples of 2016, 2020, and above all Jan. 6 fresh in their minds ever provide Trump a live, prime-time platform from which to repeat his spurious schtick?
It will come as a shock to no one that the answer, in all likelihood, is ratings. Cable news is a fiercely competitive business, and one that lives and dies on big personalities and exclusive access. What’s notable in this case, though, is that CNN has of late been doing a lot more dying than living. In March, the network was down an alarming 61% in prime-time ratings, drawing an average of just 473,000 viewers compared with MSNBC’s 1.14 million and 2.09 million for Fox. So you can imagine that CNN’s new CEO, Chris Licht, just a year into his tenure, is pretty desperate to prove the brand can still draw a crowd. Following Wednesday’s predictably disastrous town hall, there are plenty of reasons to worry about how the network—which has a history of prioritizing eyeballs over integrity when it comes to Trump—will operate in 2024.
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CNN is in the midst of an identity crisis—and one that coincides with the merger of its former parent company, Warner Bros., with Discovery. The latter empire was built on Middle American lifestyle content, from HGTV to TLC to Food Network, and its longtime chief executive, David Zaslav, is now CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery. Both Zaslav and Licht have spoken about their plans to re-establish CNN as a truly nonpartisan network. “We have divided government. We need to hear both voices,” Zaslav told CNBC last week. “Republicans are on air on CNN, and Democrats are on air on CNN. All voices should be heard on CNN.” In a memo accompanying a brutal round of layoffs in December, Licht articulated his intention to “expand and diversify the viewpoints we bring our audience.” As NPR notes, this new ethos preceded Licht’s firing of Don Lemon (which also followed a controversy around Lemon’s on-air sexism) and cancellation of Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources; both hosts had been vocal in criticizing Trump.
Be that as it may, the decision to host a liar on a national stage, in an unpredictable live setting, should not be framed as a win for bipartisanship. Yes, as Collins dutifully announced at the top of the town hall, CNN agreed to no preconditions for the event. She was quick to fact-check Trump, except for all the times when she wasn’t. But it didn’t really matter what the moderator was saying. As usual, Trump treated the town hall like a rally—which is to say, a combination of stand-up set and gaslighting session. An audience made up of likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters, i.e. an almost entirely white cohort of Republicans and independents, was given free reign to cheer slogans like “drill, baby, drill,” boo any mention of Trump’s foes, and, most disturbingly, laugh at his jokey mischaracterizations of Carroll and other favorite targets.
Unfortunately, from an audience-development perspective, the choice of moderator and crowd were canny moves on the network’s part. Trump has been feuding with his old allies at Fox News since they started to talk up his likely primary opponent Ron DeSantis. So, by hosting an audience that echoed their own attitudes, CNN essentially rolled out the red carpet to not just Trump, but also his most loyal supporters, who are guaranteed to follow him anywhere—including an outlet that has historically been a punching bag for their hero.
Collins slots neatly into a role many women—Pelosi, Carroll, Hillary Clinton, Megyn Kelly—have played in the former president’s melodrama, as a mouthpiece for truths he finds inconvenient and a target for his insult-comedy misogyny. Which makes her a valuable character for CNN to cultivate. While Democrats who might’ve abandoned the network for the more vocally left-leaning MSNBC get a new champion to cheer on, Trump fans get a new villain to hate-watch. Is it any wonder that Variety reported, just after the town hall, that Collins “is widely expected to be given new anchoring duties at 9 p.m.” on CNN? Or that, according to Stelter, Licht opened an editorial call Thursday morning by praising her “masterful performance last night”?
Indeed, any hopes that CNN would be chastened by the ugly spectacle it allowed Trump and his adoring audience to create on Wednesday were dashed within 12 hours of the town hall’s airing. In the same editorial call, Licht reportedly doubled down on defending the network’s choice of crowd. “While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story,” he said. Licht’s ultimate assessment of the event: “I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night.” The ratings piece is still to come, but it would be extremely surprising if Wednesday didn’t turn out to be the biggest evening for CNN—which followed up the town hall with the obligatory panel of scandalized pundits—in quite a while. And so a loss for the American electorate becomes a win for CNN, not in credibility but in visibility, at a moment when CNN very badly needs one. The road to Election Day 2024 has never looked more treacherous.
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