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Should CNN hold a town hall with Donald Trump?
No matter that he's the GOP frontrunner, giving a platform to a man who incited an insurrection is reckless unless he's fully held to account.
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The news dropped yesterday that CNN would be holding a town hall in New Hampshire with Donald Trump. The audience will be Republican primary voters. The moderator will be CNN host and former Daily Caller reporter Kaitlin Collins. And it won’t be live, but no air date has been given by CNN.
And so it begins. Another hideous election season in which cable TV networks potentially legitimize a liar and criminal.
Is CNN, as a cable news network committed to covering the presidential election, obligated to give Trump a town hall? Absolutely not. They can cover the campaign as well as every other news organization—from The New York Times to MSNBC, which don’t host town halls with Trump—and still live up to that commitment.
But even if it is not obligated to do so, is it wrong for CNN to hold a town hall with Trump? Not necessarily. There may be a way to do it if CNN is committed to holding Trump accountable and making him answer questions about the investigations hanging over him—from January 6th and the Mar-a-Lago documents to the Georgia voter fraud and New York hush money cases—including exactly how he intends to govern with all of this surrounding him.
Angelo Carusone of Media Matters called it a "transparent attempt to goose their ratings, which does feel at least a little odious. But all the more reason that they need to get this right."
But do any of us think that will happen? I, for one, don’t have much faith.
It is mind-boggling to think about, but CNN is likely to just treat this as yet another normal town hall with a presidential candidate—even as this man encouraged violence in recent weeks among his supporters as he feared being indicted and is right now in the middle of a civil trial which will determine if he is guilty of raping a woman.
They will likely let him rail on about how terrible the country is right now, how horrible his opponents are, and how he’ll restore the nation to the “greatness” of his administration. And he will no doubt promote the Big Lie—a dangerous threat to democracy—repeatedly.
This is the same network that Trump has bashed over and over, calling it the “enemy of the people.” But they don’t care about that, not when ratings equal dollars.
Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, and maybe CNN has some grand plan. Perhaps the fact that the event isn’t live — as candidate town halls on CNN almost always are—gives CNN the ability to cut out his lies or fact-check him on the screen.
This doesn’t seem likely, though, since CNN seems to have worked hard to get Trump to do the town hall, which means it could have agreed to preconditions. Hugo Lowell of the Guardian reported that "people close to Trump say he’s taking part in understanding that the campaign could get more surrogates on air — though CNN denies such an arrangement."
The announcement comes at a time when CNN’s new CEO, Chris Licht, has been moving the network to the right under the guise of trying to just "report the news"—which sounds like Fox’s "fair and balanced" scam—by banishing anchors, commentators, and segments that are too anti-Trump.
Whether CNN agreed to preconditions or not, this is a win for Trump. If they go hard on him, he’ll rant that he was strung up by the liberal media. If they don't, he gets another platform, as he had from CNN throughout the 2016 campaign and the 2020 campaign.
Trump’s actions as president were horrendous enough for CNN or any network not to give him a forum like a town hall in 2020. But after January 6th, CNN would be applauded for saying it would not host a man who caused death and destruction by inciting a mob in an insurrection aimed at overturning the election—and certainly would not be criticized by the majority of Americans.
The fact that it chose to go with the town hall shows it puts dollars above all else, including American democracy. Now we’ll watch to see how they pull it off without further feeding the flames of authoritarianism.
UPDATE: While the initial AP report said the event wouldn’t be live and would be aired at a date that was undetermined, later reporting, including on CNN’s website, referred to the event as a live event that will take place on May 10. This makes it even more difficult to imagine that CNN will able to keep Trump’s lies from being aired nor that those lies will be adequately checked.