CNN’s decision to host a town hall with former President Trump has sparked fresh controversy around media coverage of the former president.
The network, which got into a mutually antagonistic relationship with Trump during his time in the White House, will host a New Hampshire town hall in primetime next Wednesday. CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins will moderate.
CNN came under fire almost as soon as the news of the event broke.
MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan tweeted on Monday that CNN was “giving a live primetime platform to an indicted insurrection-inciter, who also incited violence against their network.”
Hasan added that he had been asked many times whether the media had “learned lessons” from 2016 and 2020, and that CNN’s decision indicated to him that “clearly some in our media have not.”
Liberal activists were equally condemnatory of the decision.
Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder and executive director of Ultraviolet, a pro-gender equality organization, called Trump “a flagrant misogynist” and ‘insurrectionist” to whom CNN was about to give “free airtime and an unfettered platform to spew lies and hate.”
Her organization is calling on the network to cancel the event.
Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal Media Matters for America, called the proposed event “at least a little odious” and a “transparent attempt to goose their ratings.”
David Kurtz of the left-leaning TalkingPointsMemo wrote that CNN choosing to do a town hall event rather than a one-on-one interview, “enables Trump and those like him free rein to spew misinformation, falsehoods, and half-truths unhindered by any mediating journalistic considerations.”
On social media, there was plenty along the same lines.
The contours of the debate are familiar from Trump’s original run for the presidency and the years that followed.
The early stages of Trump’s first presidential run, which he launched in mid-2015, were granted enormous media attention.
Critics on the left contended this was one of the major factors that enabled the then-candidate to leapfrog other more established rivals on his path to the GOP nomination.
While Trump was president, CNN in particular often seemed to adopt an openly adversarial tone — something which boosted ratings, riled conservatives and arguably damaged CNN’s brand.
Chris Licht, who took over as CNN’s chairman and CEO last year, is widely perceived to be seeking to shift the network onto a less partisan footing.
Still, the debate around appropriate coverage of Trump is given added edge in the wake of his fictional claims of election fraud in 2020, his conduct in and around Jan. 6, 2021, his recent criminal indictment in Manhattan and the ongoing trial centered upon E. Jean Carroll’s accusation that Trump raped her in the mid-1990s.
Does the CNN town hall give a platform to a public figure who is uniquely prone to misinformation and inflammatory language, as its critics claim?
Or, as its defenders could argue, is it absurd to suggest that any mainstream organization can ignore a figure like Trump who, these days, is the clear front-runner for the GOP’s 2024 nomination?
Somewhere in the middle are those who appreciate the complexity of the situation.
“It’s too easy to say Trump got elected because the networks gave him so much airtime,” David Greenberg, a professor of history, and of journalism and media studies, at Rutgers University, told this column. “Simply putting someone on the screen doesn’t magically make them president.”
But Greenberg, who is also the author of a book, “Republic of Spin,” dealing with the presidency, media and communications, added that it was nonetheless important for CNN to retain a sense of proportion in its Trump coverage.
“It is naive to expect that mainstream media will just boycott Trump. And even if they could be pressured into doing so, I’m not sure that would be the right thing to do. You don’t want to boycott Trump but you don’t want to give him a platform disproportionate to the other candidates.”
CNN has so far offered only standard, broad descriptions of the nature of the town-hall event, asserting that it is part of a “longstanding tradition of hosting leading presidential candidates” and that such events are “a critical component of the network’s robust campaign coverage.”
There will clearly be enormous focus on what the network does to push back against any factually untrue comments made by Trump.
Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, said he would be “stunned” if CNN did not offer significant fact-checking of Trump, whether in a dedicated segment, in a post-town hall panel discussion or from Collins herself.
But Reeher also defended the nature of the event.
Trump “is a former president. He is, whether we like it or not, a legitimate candidate for the nomination. So I think it is entirely appropriate to host a town hall,” he said.
Reeher also argued vigorously that it would be an equally serious dereliction of duty if CNN or any other network bowed to the demands of activist groups and de-platformed such a central political figure.
“Some of the networks, during some periods in the last eight years, have dropped their impartiality but that would be another level,” he said, adding it would amount to the media taking “a giant step over the line.”
The hubbub is sure to continue right up until the event itself, and perhaps beyond it.
Those big ratings are, as ever, the one goal that Trump and CNN are chasing together.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.