To Trump or not to Trump?
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The May 10 CNN town hall broadcast featuring former United States president Donald Trump wrapped up almost two weeks ago, but Americans are still trying to figure out what exactly happened.
The whole town hall idea seemed implausible: CNN, a network reviled by Mr. Trump and which has steadfastly challenged the former president’s false claims of electoral fraud, giving an open forum and free rein to the presumptive front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination to spew his Trumpian effluent.
But, hey, news is news. At least, that’s the way CNN leadership tried to justify its decision to host the town hall.
In the aftermath of the profane and incorrigible performance by Trump, CNN CEO Chris Licht reportedly told staff: “You do not have to like the former president’s answers but you can’t say that we didn’t get them.”
That rationalization has satisfied almost no one in the broader news media and political world. In what many perceive to have been an unabashed ratings grab, CNN opened the door to its primetime lineup and allowed Mr. Trump to amble in to spin a torrent of falsehoods and profanity.
During the town hall, Mr. Trump continued to rage about how he was cheated out of re-election. He called the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol “a beautiful day.” He repeated a pledge that if re-elected, his first course of action will be to pardon anyone convicted of a crime in connection with the insurrection.
The day before the CNN broadcast, a New York jury found that Mr. Trump had sexually abused writer E. Jean Carroll nearly 30 years ago and awarded her US$5 million in damages. In the town hall, Mr. Trump continued to deny the allegations and, as he has repeatedly throughout the legal proceedings, called Ms. Carroll a “whack job.”
Host Kaitlin Collins played the now infamous Access Hollywood video in which he bragged about how he regularly grabbed women’s genitals, and asked if he still thought that was acceptable. Mr. Trump said famous men are allowed to grab women wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. “I can’t take that back because it happens to be true,” he said.
It was a spectacle full of lies and vile claims. It was, in the end, Trump being Trump. But was it a defensible decision by a news organization that claims to be committed to truth and fairness? CNN was summarily condemned by other news organizations but in hosting the event, CNN provided a valuable preview of the coming dilemmas facing all news organizations.
There is no way to avoid the fact that Mr. Trump will play a prominent role in the Republican nomination and may become the party’s presidential nominee. And there is little doubt that through it all, he will continue to utter lies.
And how will news organizations respond?
They will fact check and continue to point out the lies in his campaign. But Mr. Trump is patently aware they cannot ignore him.
One final note about CNN’s ratings. On the night of the town hall, CNN attracted more than three million viewers, which is five times their normal audience. However, in the days that followed, the network’s ratings dropped by 40 per cent, pushing it from No. 3 in the primetime news channel ratings to fourth.
That reaction from viewers serves two important purposes: it is a stern warning to journalists to find balance in their coverage of Trump; and it may be evidence that even though Trump will continue to lie, the willingness of Americans to listen is waning.