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CNN is defending its disgusting Trump town hall. But the consequences have only just begun

The CNN town hall suggests that at least some portion of the media is eager to repeat history

Noah Berlatsky
Friday 12 May 2023 16:16 BST
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(Will Lanzoni/CNN)

Pundits and critics have been pretty much united in denouncing CNN’s disgusting Donald Trump town hall. The former president predictably spread his usual lies about the 2020 election. He also again insulted E Jean Carroll, a journalist he was found liable of sexually assaulting.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper tried to defend the debacle by insisting that the network had helped people get out of their “silo” and see the danger Trump posed. But no one was impressed. “I don’t believe the choices are between hosting live a firehose of falsehood and ‘staying in your silo,’” NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted. Former George W Bush speechwriter Matthew Dowd summed up the general sentiment, saying that CNN “failed journalism and our country.”

All of the vilification is well deserved. CNN’s Trump town hall did harm the country. But there’s been little discussion of those perhaps most directly damaged by the event: Trump’s Republican opponents. Just as in 2016, the media is convinced that Trump can boost ratings. And just as then, their fascination with him is likely to give him a big boost not in the general, but in the GOP primary.

Most people who follow politics closely are aware that the media covered Trump obsessively in the run-up to 2016. In May 2016, Cable News networks infamously had their cameras filming Trump’s empty podium while his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, gave a major speech. Trump was viewed as novelty entertainment; for the networks it was like covering an orange-skinned circus.

Even so, Clinton got plenty of earned media during the 2016 general election; presidential nominees of the two major parties are on the news constantly. The media was arguably biased against Clinton in other harmful ways. But she wasn’t swamped by the sheer weight of Trump TV hours.

The situation was very different in the GOP nomination fight, though. Primary candidates in a large field struggle to get their messages – or even their names – out to an electorate that hasn’t yet started to focus on the next presidential election. Every minute of national coverage is hard fought and hard won.

Or at least it is for most candidates. But Trump, who had been a controversial celebrity for decades, couldn’t sneeze without the national media stampeding to record it. He spent hardly anything on television advertising through March of 2016, and was nonetheless rewarded with an estimated$2 billion of free media. That was significantly more than twice as much as his closest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. GOP voters saw Trump on TV, then they saw Trump on TV again, then they saw him on TV ten more times. And, unsurprisingly, voters cast their ballots for the guy being covered as if he were the presumptive nominee.

The media’s interference in the GOP primary was egregious and grotesque. It is not much discussed, though. Republicans are reluctant to criticize Trump, who has captured their base’s loyalty. And Democrats understandably can’t muster a lot of outrage at media mistreatment of born again Trump lickspittles like Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. As a result, the media dynamics of the 2016 GOP primary have been somewhat memory holed.

But the recent CNN town hall suggests that at least some portion of the media is eager to repeat history.

Trump should not have been given an hour before a friendly audience to spout his repeated vicious lies. But he also shouldn’t have been given that hour because the GOP primary is under way, and the media should be making at least some small effort to inform Republican voters about their options.

Even if you decide to restrict your forum only to candidates who have announced their candidacy officially, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley should have been on that stage with Trump. And if you really wanted to serve your audience, you should probably just wait until more de facto candidates like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott make it official.

Of course, Trump has threatened to simply boycott GOP debates. That’s all the more reason not to give him a one-man forum in which he can posture as the only GOP choice. He hasn’t won the nomination. CNN shouldn’t act like he has.

Personally I think Donald Trump’s leading rival, Ron DeSantis, would be just about as horrific a choice as Trump himself. But it’s not completely impossible that GOP voters could pick a less despicable figure. Failing that, increasingly nasty internal GOP politics, if allowed to play out, could potentially damage Trump in the general election. The GOP is trying to destroy democracy – they should at least have a chance to destroy themselves first.

But CNN seems determined to resolve the primary as soon as possible in favor of Trump. The incentives here are the same as in 2016; Trump’s still a celebrity, still erratic, still a way to get eyes on your network. No one is likely to weep for Nikki Haley. But she’s one of the first, most direct victims this cycle of a news media that is bored with informing its viewers. CNN has decided, apparently, that boosting a dangerous liar is more fun.

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