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News Every Day |

Enough With the Bellyaching Over CNN’s Trump Town Hall

The captains who steer the SS CNN sent first mate Kaitlan Collins into the bilge Wednesday night to bail out the sinking ship with a thimble, while Donald Trump used the town hall format to blast a hole in CNN’s hull with a torpedo barrage of lies.

Collins, a resourceful journalist who thinks as fast on her feet as Muhammad Ali did on his, couldn’t keep up. That’s no reflection on her. Nobody practiced in the art of the interview has ever been able to stop this lying chatterbox in a live session. As scholar Michael Socolow points out, Chris Wallace, Lesley Stahl and Jonathan Swan successfully tamed him, but all of those Trump interviewers were taped and edited, which neutered his predictable and exuberant filibustering. Plus, those interviews were conducted without an audience. Trump’s CNN town hall, on the other hand, was stocked from stem to stern with cheering acolytes who rewarded his every insult and evasion with laughter and applause. It’s hard to conduct an interview when rotten fruit and vegetables are being hurled onto the stage.

So was it a “mistake” on CNN’s part to give Trump such a forum? No. The town hall’s results could have been predicted — in fact, they were predicted by about a million commentators in the days leading up to the event. The chorus observed that Trump can lie faster than any real-time interviewer can fact-check him, so the immediate advantage of the arena will generally accrue to him. CNN could have armed Collins with a centrifugal pump to siphon the Trump deluge, and she still would have been swamped. If it was all a ratings ploy, it wasn’t a very good one, as it attracted fewer viewers than six previous Trump town halls on Fox.

But in principle, a Trump interview was a good idea because it’s never a mistake for the press to confront newsmakers, even if the newsmaker lies about the integrity of the 2020 election, which Trump did. Even if he mocks the justice system because it has held against him, which Trump did. Even if he uses the rhetorical devises of ad hominem, ad populum, ad baculum to savage his foes, as Trump did. Even if he insults the interviewer, which Trump did (“You’re a nasty person,” he said to Collins). Even if he refuses to answer simple questions about his stand on abortion, which Trump repeatedly did. And even if he offers his self-serving hallucinations about the events of January 6 as the truth, which Trump did.

An interview, even one in a town hall setting, which turns the sparring into a form of entertainment, can yield some positive results. Like what positive results, you ask? Under the previous management, CNN positioned itself as part of the Trump resistance once he became president and his demagogy reached full blossom. CNN devoted as much energy to editorializing against Trump during his presidency as it did covering him that some days the network resembled an opinion newspaper with two pages of news tacked on the end of the first section instead of a newspaper that ends with two pages of editorials.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with running a cable news network that front-loads opinion. But having signaled that it wants to restore news to primacy, an interview with Trump was a good idea, even if he is the most profligate liar ever to sit in the White House. Trump, after all, leads the Republican presidential polls by a wide margin. A genuine news outlet can’t avert its eyes during a campaign just because a candidate is malevolent, duplicitous, cruel and deceitful. It can’t back away just because, as many complained after the town hall, it produced bad television by restoring the evil Trump to his previous place in the public sphere and served as the equivalent of a MAGA rally. The criticism of the event was so complete that even CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy expressed his distaste for it in his CNN newsletter.

Such poses might look good on Twitter, where arguments are made 280 characters at a time, and where those who damn CNN are guaranteed a hundred retweets. But the job of journalism is to confront the world and its actors as they are, not shrink away from them in fright because covering them might benefit them.

Did the town hall benefit Trump? Yes, by allowing Trump to repeat his lies to his faithful, who have previously chewed, digested and absorbed them like a holy sacrament. But news judgment isn’t a simple matter of measuring whether or not exposure might help a candidate. The Collins interview also wasn’t a complete washout. By daring to commit journalism, it produced a bounty of information that just may damage Trump. Writing in Salon, Igor Derysh notes that Trump’s town hall utterances appear to have given additional evidence that will be useful in the Georgia investigation of the 2020 election and Trump’s classified documents case, and could give E. Jean Carroll, who just prevailed in a defamation suit against Trump, the ammunition to file another against him. Derysh quotes former federal prosecutor Richard Signorelli’s tweet that says Carroll “can just amend the complaint from her other case against him with court permission, or file a third action against the sociopath.”

The lessons taught by Collins and CNN Wednesday night are not to fear Trump or to actively suppress his ideas but that the best format for tangling with him is a taped one, where he can’t chomp scenery and eat up the clock with non-answers, and one where the audience is at home in front of their televisions, not in an auditorium cheering him on.

We should all look forward to the next Trump TV interview, for all the good and bad it will surely deliver.


Who has ever done political vaudeville like Trump? Huey Long? George Wallace? Send your nomination to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed lives for its cheering audience. My Mastodon and Post accounts have withered to nothing. What’s the point? My Substack Notes account is about as useful as my Bluesky account, which doesn’t exist. My RSS feed is a bigger demagogue than Trump.

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