When CNN announced that it had arranged to host a town hall for Donald Trump, we weren't quite sure what to think. On one hand, this business of "Republicans go on Fox and OAN and Democrats go on CNN and MSNBC" is not great for democracy and for breaking down people's bubbles. On the other hand, we're a little leery of CNN's tendency to perform "balance," and we also don't know what on earth Donald Trump might plausibly say that everyone hasn't heard a thousand times before.
Now that it's happened, however, we've reached our conclusion: Badly done, CNN. The former president was, of course, the same old Trump. He bullied host/moderator Kaitlan Collins. He told baldfaced, easily disprovable lies, like that he never called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and demanded Raffensperger find 11,780 votes (Pro tip, Donald: There's an audio recording of the call). He raged against anyone and everyone, with E. Jean Carroll the favorite target. And even when he deigned to answer questions, he gave answers that you could have predicted with 100% certainty, For example, when asked if he would accept the results of the 2024 election, he said he would only do so if he believed it to be an "honest" election. Since the only honest election, in his mind, is one that Donald Trump wins, then it means he'll only accept the results if he comes out on top. This is something we all knew long before last night.
All of this said, our criticism of CNN is not based merely on the fact that the event was a blend of "useless" and "fiasco." No, it's mostly based on the fact that the network made what are, in our view, three unacceptable choices. Choices problematic enough that we would consider them to be breaches of journalistic ethics. The first of these was choosing Collins as the moderator. The reason given was that she covered the Trump White House, and so he is "familiar" with her. But what it really looks like is that CNN is about to, in effect, give Collins the slot that Don Lemon vacated, and they wanted to get potential viewers interested in her show. What the network should have done is send their toughest bulldog in there, someone who can go toe-to-toe with Trump. And, truth be told, that probably means a male moderator (John King?) since The Donald is such a misogynist and CNN doesn't have that many on-air women staffers. That said, there's no rule that CNN has to use someone on its payroll for an event like this. Katie Couric could handle him, we think, and so could Meredith Vieira.
The second unacceptable choice was the timing of the event. CNN may not have known for sure it would be the day after the Carroll verdict came down, but they knew it would be in the vicinity, and that there was every chance that it would work out something like this. It's inexcusable to give Trump such a big platform to air his grievances, especially since Carroll has taken enough abuse. The network should have put at least a week between the verdict and the appearance, even if that meant rescheduling at the last minute. Of course, CNN does not want to do that. They undoubtedly chose this timing in hopes that it would work out like this, and that ratings would be goosed by people tuning in to see Trump's reaction to being found liable for sexual assault and defamation.
The third, and final, unacceptable choice is that, apparently in order to lure Trump in, CNN agreed to extremely Trump-favorable conditions. At very least, the audience was made up entirely of Republicans and "undecided" voters—no Democrats. He couldn't have a better home-field advantage if they had held it at Mar-a-Lago. It's very likely that other boons were granted; Trump might well have had veto power over the choice of host, and he may well have insisted that the event happen in close proximity to the Carroll verdict.
In short, in search of ratings, publicity and "balance," CNN effectively made itself into a cog in the Trump propaganda machine. Perhaps unwittingly; if so, we believe the term is "useful idiot(s)."
Once we had formed and written down our impressions, we took a look at what others were saying, and found that... there are a lot of commenters out there who agree with us. A selection:
We also took a look at the mailbag, and found that frequent commenter B.C. in Walpole, ME, has weighed in: "Riddle me this: What was CNN thinking when they decided to put the world's most notorious and best-documented liar on TV with an audience filled with his supporters and a host whom he could walk over? Did they not think that his being impeached twice, being the only President to refuse to accept the results of an election, the only President to use force and violence to prevent a transfer of power to his successor, the only President credibly accused of rape by more than a dozen women, a man for whom The Washington Post logged over 30,000 lies (where by their count, if he tells a single lie 100 times, it still only counts as 1 lie, and he still clocked in at over 30,000), might be a good reason not to give him a platform to promote himself? Are they really that desperate for ratings? Or is it that they want to drive away the audience they have?"
B.C. later wrote in to add: "A bad night for Kaitlin Collins, a bad night for CNN, a bad night for the Republican Party, a bad night for America, a bad night for democracy."
Keep in mind, also, that the town hall wrapped up around 9:30 p.m. ET, so these are all insta-responses. We anticipate a veritable avalanche of pieces today observing that CNN did not clothe itself in glory last night. And meanwhile, everyone gets to start bracing themselves for "The 2016 Presidential Campaign, Vol. III: The Song Remains the Same." (Z)