CNN Town Hall Featuring Trump Reignites a Debate

From a New York Times story by Michael M. Grynbaum headlined “CNN Town Hall Featuring Trump Reignites a Debate”:

Should a leading presidential contender be given the opportunity to speak to voters on live television?

What if that contender is former President Donald J. Trump?

Mr. Trump is set to appear on CNN on Wednesday night for a town hall in New Hampshire — his first live appearance on a major TV news network (besides those controlled by Rupert Murdoch) since 2020 — and a torrid media debate is swirling.

Joy Reid, an anchor on rival MSNBC, derided the event as “a pretty open attempt by CNN to push itself to the right and make itself attractive and show its belly to MAGA.” Her colleague Chris Hayes called the town hall “very hard to defend.” Critics asked why CNN would provide a live platform to someone who defended rioters at the United States Capitol and still insists the 2020 election was rigged.

Those objections intensified on Tuesday after Mr. Trump was found liable for the sexual abuse and defamation of the writer E. Jean Carroll. “Is @CNN still going to do a town hall with the sexual predator twice impeached insurrectionist?” Alexander S. Vindman, the Army colonel who was a witness in Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial, wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Trump is also, at the moment, the highest-polling Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential campaign and the de facto leader of his party. Some veteran TV journalists wonder: What’s the alternative?

“So no more live political events, because politicians can be nasty? Because politicians can tell lies?” Ted Koppel, the former “Nightline” anchor, said. “I’m not sure that news organizations should necessarily be in the business of making ideological judgments. Is he a legitimate object of news attention? You bet.”

Wednesday’s town hall, where Mr. Trump will field questions from Republican and undecided voters, is in some ways a stress test — and an unsettling preview — for the television news industry as it prepares to cover a presidential contest that is likely, in its early stages at least, to prominently include Mr. Trump.

Any telecast featuring the former president is bound to be divisive. Were anchors too harsh? Too lenient? How quickly did they react to false claims? And foes of Mr. Trump will cringe at seeing him on air at all.

But Bob Schieffer, the longtime CBS anchor, said that interviews of important political figures were necessary. “There’s no question he might well get the nomination,” he said of Mr. Trump. “We’re in the business of telling people who’s running for what and what they stand for.”

CNN faced criticism in 2016 for granting Mr. Trump hours of unfettered airtime during the Republican primary. Jeff Zucker, the network’s president at the time, later acknowledged he had overdone it.

Mr. Trump then spent years vilifying the network, leading chants of “CNN sucks” and barring its correspondent Jim Acosta from the White House. A YouGov poll last month found that CNN was the country’s most polarizing major media source, with the widest gap between the portion of Democrats who trust it and the portion of Republicans who don’t.

Mr. Trump last appeared on CNN in 2016, and since then much has changed. CNN was acquired by Warner Bros. Discovery, and Mr. Zucker was replaced; his successor, Chris Licht, pledged to broaden the network’s appeal. He is backed by David Zaslav, the Warner chief executive, who has batted away objections to Wednesday’s Trump town hall.

“The U.S. has a divided government; we need to hear both voices,” Mr. Zaslav said last week on CNBC, where he was questioned repeatedly about the decision to host Mr. Trump. “When we do politics, we need to represent both sides. I think it’s important for America.”

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has soured on Fox News, irked by Mr. Murdoch’s support for a potential Republican rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. And he has taken notice of Mr. DeSantis’s aversion to appearing on mainstream outlets like CNN.

Mr. Trump and CNN are not exactly reconciled. There is the awkward fact that Mr. Trump still has a pending $475 million defamation lawsuit against the network. And in a missive on Truth Social on Tuesday, the former president told fans that CNN was “rightfully desperate to get those fantastic (TRUMP!) ratings once again.” He added: “Could be the beginning of a New & Vibrant CNN, with no more Fake News, or it could turn into a disaster for all, including me. Let’s see what happens?”

As olive branches go, it felt a bit spindly. But David Chalian, CNN’s political director, shrugged it off. “We never stopped covering him as president despite everything he said about us,” Mr. Chalian said in an interview. “We never stopped doing our jobs.”

CNN executives will air Mr. Trump’s remarks live, without any time delay. That means if Mr. Trump makes a false claim, it will be up to the moderator, Kaitlan Collins, or an onscreen graphic to correct him in real time. Mr. Trump’s last three interviews on Fox News were prerecorded. (Fox recently paid $787.5 million to settle a defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems, after several of its anchors amplified Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the company.)

In the interview, Mr. Chalian said that CNN was “in the business of live news events — that’s what we do.” He added, “I obviously can’t control what Donald Trump says, but what we can control is our journalism.”

CNN did not agree to preconditions for the town hall, Mr. Chalian said — “No question is off the table” — and Ms. Collins has spent several days preparing for the broadcast. Selecting Ms. Collins to moderate is in keeping with Mr. Licht’s emphasis on reporting over punditry; Ms. Collins is best known for day-to-day White House coverage and previously worked at The Daily Caller, a conservative outlet.

Mr. Koppel said Ms. Collins was a “tough and able” journalist who could handle Mr. Trump in a live setting. He said CNN had many reasons to go forward with the event.

“Has Trump pushed the boundaries of honesty, good taste, decency, humanity, to such a degree that we should not put him on the air at all, unless we’ve had the chance to sanitize what he has to say?” Mr. Koppel said. “I can understand that’s a reasonable question to ask. But it puts a very heavy burden on the shoulders of the people who run our networks. Because it means we are going to let them decide who gets on the air, and who doesn’t.”

Michael M. Grynbaum is a media correspondent covering the intersection of business, culture and politics.

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