Thursday’s raucous town hall with Donald Trump on CNN in prime time sparked a wave of criticism from both inside and outside the network, raising new concerns about how the news media will cover the Republican Party front-runner’s repeated lies leading up to the 2024 election.
Throughout the live, seventy-minute forum on Wednesday night at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, the former president regularly sidestepped or sneered at questions from CNN’s moderator, Kaitlan Collins. He repeated his untrue assertion that “a rigged election” was the cause of his defeat in 2020 and called writer E. Jean Carroll, who had just won her case against him for defamation and battery, a “whack job,” to the laughter and applause of the audience, which was made up of local Republican voters.
Collins questioned him about why he took sensitive documents out of the White House, to which he said, “You are a nasty person.”
Former network TV news executive Mark Lukasiewicz called the on-air show “predictably disastrous,” joining a chorus of media sceptics and political watchers who lamented the spectacle. Live lying is effective. The moderator is unable to keep up with Trump’s lies at the rate of an AR-15 as a friendly MAGA crowd cheers and applauds his jokes.
The broadcast was a ratings letdown, with Nielsen reporting only 3.1 million total viewers at a time when CNN has been battling to reverse viewership erosion. That was a significant increase above CNN’s regular 8 p.m. broadcast, but it was lower than the town hall with President Biden that was shown by CNN last summer (3.7 million) and the six prior Trump town halls that were broadcast by Fox News, raising questions about both CNN and Trump’s appeal.
The damage done to the network’s reputation, which has long marketed itself as “the most trusted name in news,” may have a more significant consequence. It also sparked concerns about Chris Licht, the chief executive, who took over for Trump supporter-turned-critic Jeff Zucker last year and is tasked with adopting a more impartial stance at a cable network that was awash in passionate commentary during the Trump administration.
The town hall was described as “CNN’s lowest moment” by journalists within CNN and outside the company as well as a “debacle” and “disaster.” Late on Wednesday, the Twitter hashtags and phrases BoycottCNN, DoneWithCNN, and ByeCNN became popular.
The main focus of the critique is that CNN’s structure, which it has employed for numerous candidates over the years, allowed Trump to portray a dishonest recounting of his past by enabling his filibustering and impeding real-time fact checking. The awful truth is that this conclusion was preordained, according to WWE-style platform dynamics and absolute domination of the stage, said seasoned political journalist James Fallows in a tweet. Some saw the show as a modified version of a Trump campaign rally, the kind that CNN occasionally broadcast live during the 2015–16 election cycle, something Zucker later admitted he regretted.