Not even the boldest bookies would have made odds a year ago that Donald Trump would do an extended interview on CNN. The cable news network was for years at the head of the “Trump resistance,” cheerleading his impeachments and hectoring him at press conferences. But despite condemning shrieks that CNN should not give an interview platform to the former president, the telecast happened. And the world remains on its axis.
The event came off about as expected. Trump displayed his usual brash and untethered rhetorical style. CNN’s interviewer, Kaitlan Collins, for her part, stood toe to toe with the former president, challenging him on multiple fronts. Trump fans thought he did great at the town hall and were angry with Collins for her scrutinizing approach. Anti-Trump viewers had their blood pressure readings spike. And centrist viewers … well, there are no centrists when it comes to Trump.
In the end, little real news emerged, and this event will have little long-term impact on anything.
Much of the pre- and post-forum flak directed at CNN comes from colleagues in other media outlets. They accuse CNN of making a gross grab for ratings, and boosting Trump’s primary campaign with a platform from which to make his Trumpian proclamations. While it is noteworthy that CNN did the event at all — surely it recognizes that Trump remains a controversial figure, deeply despised by various corners of the establishment and the electorate — Trump remains a player on the American political scene, and in that regard, he is newsworthy. Critics who don’t think Trump remains a political newsmaker have apparently not noticed that he is leading the GOP primary polls and measures up polling-wise in a possible rematch with President Biden.
Eliminating Trump from the news agenda would be journalism of omission (presuming that a news void would even make him go away). But covering Trump doesn’t necessarily advance him politically. His performance on CNN hardly put him in the category of JFK or Ronald Reagan as an oratorical dynamo. If anything, the CNN forum cemented that the Trump of today is the same Trump of yesteryear. Voters need to see that, for whatever they want to make of it.
Journalism is better off when it takes on controversial politicians, as opposed to ignoring them. CBS’s Edward R. Murrow knew that when he reported on Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy during the “Red Scare” of the early 1950s. Murrow reported his own version of McCarthy’s tactics in a broadcast, and later gave McCarthy a full half-hour to explain himself in an unedited rebuttal. McCarthy was exposed and journalism served its function.
Just about as zany and unpredictable as Trump showing up on CNN, the press-shy President Biden recently did a sit-down interview with a major news outlet — a rare happening, indeed. A highlight of the interview was the president attacking the media for his dismal polling, apparently unaware of the fawning news coverage he has received throughout his presidential campaign and White House years. Perhaps even more shocking, Biden took reporters’ questions after his unproductive meeting this week with Republican congressional leaders. Given Biden’s performance in those respective venues, his handlers might well relegate the president back into his cloistered existence, leaving the press to again complain about lack of access.
Such is the warped and whacky political sphere in which America suffers. The establishment news media, for its part, contributes to the din with a confusing, sensational and polarizing agenda, not to mention a crass concern for clicks and ratings. News outlets wrestle with trying to stifle one prominent politician while begging for access to another.
Doing responsible journalism has never been more challenging in American history than it is today. The reporting choices to be made in the runup to the 2024 presidential election will become even tougher than what CNN just experienced with the Trump interview. No doubt those choices will affect the political landscape and possibly the outcome. Here’s hoping the news media are up to the task.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.