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Here’s What CNN Should Have Learned From Fox News

Trump’s town hall was designed to appeal to disaffected Fox viewers — and that is a fool’s errand.

Reporters watch a CNN town hall with former president and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on May 10, 2023.

I think everyone knew that CNN’s very special episode of The Trump Show on Wednesday night was going to be a fiasco. How could it not be? Donald Trump lies as easily as he breathes and he was going to be given a live platform to do it. We’ve seen him do these events for years now and there was no reason to believe this one would be any different.

If there was anything startling about it it was the friendly audience that cheered and jeered as if they were at a Trump rally. But we should have expected that too. CNN said the town hall was for Republican primary and “undeclared” voters and there’s no mystery about what kind of people show up for campaign events with Donald Trump. All that was missing were the red hats and the awkward line dancing to “YMCA.”

I won’t go into the full litany of rhetorical atrocities. You can read more about them in these pieces by Amanda Marcotte, Brian Karem and Igor Derysh. Suffice it to say that he was as obnoxious and crude as always, reminding anyone who’s forgotten just how unfit he is for the office of president of the United States. If anything, his vocabulary seems to have shrunk even more than before. He had to resort to repeatedly calling everything and everyone “stupid.” But the crowd loved him and he loved the crowd and they fed off each other the whole night.

So, what did CNN do wrong on Wednesday? The most important bad decision (other than doing it at all) was they did it live. The first rule of covering Trump is that it absolutely has to be on tape or you cannot competently fact-check him. Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon famously told author Michael Lewis, “The real opposition is the media and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” That is exactly what Donald Trump did in prime time.

The moderator, Kaitlin Collins, was well prepared and corrected him repeatedly but in those situations, Trump just behaves as if he hasn’t heard the other person and the truth doesn’t matter. His tsunami of lies just crashed over her head. Any respectable news organization that has to cover him should always do it with the ability to contextualize what he says and you can only do it with a taped interview. CNN knew that. They’ve been covering him for eight years now.

Barring something unpredictable happening to him before the RNC convention next year, the town hall was just more evidence that Donald Trump is going to be the GOP nominee for president in 2024. And it’s clear that CNN has decided that they are going to chase the ratings that Donald Trump has promised them and hopefully attract some of those disaffected Fox viewers. They are going back to the 2016 playbook.

It’s a shame. One of the more edifying consequences of Trump’s bizarre tenure and the damage he has done to our politics was the fact that most of the mainstream media stopped treating him as if he were a normal politician. Sure, it took them far too long to do that and they failed in many respects, but they largely left behind the tropes and conventions that had empowered Trump’s rise, such as “both sides” journalism and a phony attitude of objective neutrality which was impossible to sustain in the face of his outrageous behavior.

Over time they became comfortable with covering Trump as honestly as possible, certainly more honestly than they’d covered politics before. And his response to any criticism or honest portrayal of his campaign and presidency was to lash out. They learned that there was no way to avoid that short of total servility and deference. Even the venerable right-wing propaganda arm for the Republican Party, Fox News, was held to that standard (to which they happily capitulated.) Any media institution or individual journalist who didn’t became an “enemy of the people” and was treated as such.

We’ve all seen what happened to Fox, Trump’s vassal network, when they dared to report that the election was not stolen by the Democrats and their frantic attempts to contain the damage. It has cost them 787 million dollars and counting. It makes you wonder why in the world CNN would seek to attract an audience that makes such demands, but that’s exactly what they are trying to do. This town hall was clearly designed to appeal to the disaffected Fox viewers who are angry about the network’s alleged abandonment of Trump and the firing of Tucker Carlson. And that is a fool’s errand.

But then, CNN’s been moving to the right ever since the change in corporate ownership of the network last year. They claim they are simply reverting to “objective” journalism but since the only objective way to cover politics in America right now is to acknowledge that the Republican Party is batshit insane, it’s clear that they are leaning as far right as they can without losing their entire staff.

The new CEO, Chris Licht, fired some voices who were outspoken critics of Trump last fall, including media reporter Brian Stelter, clearly at the behest of the CEO of Warners/Discovery, David Zaslov. He happens to have been a huge proponent of the Trump town hall disaster, telling CNBC last week “he has to be on our network … we’re happy he’s coming here.” But it’s really the company’s largest shareholder and Zaslov’s mentor who is pulling the strings, the billionaire pay TV pioneer, and hardcore right-wing Republican, John Malone. He hasn’t exactly been quiet about what he expects:

“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing. Fox News, in my opinion, has followed an interesting trajectory of trying to have ‘news’ news, I mean some actual journalism, embedded in a program schedule of all opinions.”

Good luck. The right-wingers won’t let it happen because it’s all or nothing with them. Look at what they’re doing to Fox, which gave them everything they could possibly want. Trump voters, which means most of the Republican Party, are not going to start watching CNN because they gave Trump a platform. They have to give him the entire network and even that may not be enough.

CNN is and always will be the right’s whipping boy, the network they love to hate. Watching their Dear Leader roll over CNN’s newest star, a serious female journalist, seeing them call her “nasty” on network TV in front of an ecstatic crowd is their dream come true. He made a fool of the network and his followers love him for it.

Let’s just say that when this happens, it’s pretty clear you’re losing:

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