CNN Town Halls Do Democracy No Favors
After its embarrassing town hall with Donald Trump, which helped precipitate the downfall of chair and CEO Chris Licht (FAIR.org, 6/8/23), CNN has doubled down on the format—at least for Republican candidates. Since Trump’s May 10 appearance, the network has featured GOP candidates Nikki Haley (6/4/23), Mike Pence (6/7/23) and Chris Christie (6/12/23), with more promised. Curiously, however, no offers to Democratic or third party candidates have been announced, which prompts the question: What purpose do these town halls serve?
In the case of the Trump town hall, CNN‘s decision appeared to be entirely self-serving. Having worked to move the network rightward, Licht had led CNN to “its historic nadir,” as described in the Atlantic (6/2/23), in terms of both ratings and newsroom morale. The Trump town hall was meant to be the “big win” that would turn those things around.
Of course, the plan backfired. Trump had a field day, spewing lies and trampling over and insulting host Kaitlan Collins to the wild cheers of the crowd. The entire affair read as a giant campaign rally sponsored by CNN, aided by the floor manager’s instructions to the audience that while applause was permitted, booing was not. While immediate ratings spiked (Axios, 5/11/23) they then plunged even further (TV Insider, 5/16/23), as the network’s reputation immediately suffered and morale hit rock bottom. Licht was soon given the boot (FAIR.org, 6/8/23).
‘In the public’s interest’
But CNN anchor Anderson Cooper (5/11/23) would have you believe the network was actually putting democracy and the public interest first. He went on the air in a huff to accuse the network’s many critics of trying to stifle debate and refusing to face disagreeable realities. “Many of you felt CNN shouldn’t have given [Trump] any platform to speak,” he scolded. “Do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?”
Fellow anchor Jake Tapper agreed. Speaking on a New York magazine podcast (On With Kara Swisher, 7/10/23), Tapper argued that the town hall format for Trump was “in the public’s interest.”
Some outside of CNN stepped in to defend the outlet’s decision as well. The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd (5/13/23), for instance, wrote that “the task is to challenge Trump and expose him, not to put our fingers in our ears and sing ‘la, la, la.'” She approvingly quoted former Obama adviser David Axelrod:
It strikes me as fundamentally wrong to deny voters a chance to see candidates, and particularly front-running candidates, answering challenging questions from journalists and citizens in open forums…. You can’t save democracy from people who would shred its norms by shredding democratic norms yourselves.
But these specious arguments are easily dispensed with. What democratic norms require offering a serial liar a town hall stuffed full of supporters, in which the audience is instructed that applause is welcomed but booing is forbidden? In what way does that serve the public interest?
After four years of the Trump presidency and the democracy-shaking transition out of it, CNN would be hard-pressed to find a living soul who doesn’t know exactly who Trump and his supporters are and how they can be expected to behave. That the town hall was devoid of thoughtful policy discussions but replete with insults and falsehoods should have surprised no one. And despite her efforts, CNN‘s Collins had no chance of pinning down Trump in any useful way on any of his lies or contradictions in such a format.
Platform for falsehoods
But the problem goes beyond Trump. Trump’s challengers have all broken with the former president to some degree, though few will risk alienating his followers by forcefully denouncing his lies. Still, they represent a slightly more reality-based GOP than Trump, such that their town hall appearances might be expected to meet the extremely low bar of not being as filled with disinformation as Trump’s.
Yet CNN‘s own factchecks of its subsequent GOP town halls showed Haley, Pence and Christie were permitted numerous falsehoods without real-time challenge by their journalist hosts.
Haley, for instance, claimed that crime is at “all-time highs” (judged by CNN factcheckers—6/4/23— to be “not even close to true”), that Roe v. Wade made “abortion anytime, anywhere for any reason” the law of the land (“not true”), and that the US “is very good when it comes to emissions,” while the Chinese and Indians “are the problem” (seriously misleading, as the US is second to China in total current emissions, with India well in third place; the US has much higher total historical emissions, and much higher per capita emissions, than China or India).
Tapper, the host, did not push back against any of these claims.
Or take Pence’s town hall, in which he announced that inflation is “at a 40-year high” (nope—”the inflation rate has fallen for 10 straight months,” noted the CNN fact check—6/7/23), that the Trump/Pence family separations began “under Obama” and Trump and Pence simply “continued” it (“not true at all”), and that their administration “reduced CO2 emissions beyond what the previous administration had committed to just through American innovation, through expanding American energy and natural gas.” (That one CNN didn’t factcheck, but it’s terribly false.)
Host Dana Bash did not challenge any of these statements, either.
Town halls for GOP only
In contrast to its apparent policy of handing out GOP town halls like candy, CNN has announced no plans to give any Democratic candidates town halls. While Biden has the power of incumbency that the GOP field lacks, he does have at least two announced challengers: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Marianne Williamson. Meanwhile, Cornel West has declared a presidential run with the Green Party.
Kennedy and Williamson, with recent polling averages of 14.6% and 5.6% respectively among Democratic primary voters, have been polling higher than either Haley (3.5%) or Christie (2.3%). (Pence’s latest average is 6.0%.)
But Kennedy, whose campaign seems to be driven largely by right-wing funders and media as a spoiler (see FAIR.org, 6/29/23), is an outspoken conspiracy theorist on issues ranging from vaccines to the climate crisis to 5g networks. Williamson, a self-help author with mostly progressive politics, long encouraged doubts on vaccines and anti-depressants (Vox, 7/31/19), though she has since at least partially rejected those positions.
CNN‘s Tapper, despite his full-throated support for the CNN Trump town hall, has declared that he would not host a town hall with Kennedy because of his conspiracy theories. (Upstart NewsNation—6/28/23—did give Kennedy such an opportunity, the only network so far to do so.)
One of the worst possible ways
Biden may not traffic in conspiracy theories or attempt the level of dishonesty Trump revels in, but his claims regularly require factchecking as well. Virtually all politicians’ claims do—and our corporate media have never been up to the task (FAIR.org, 8/24/20). But live, single-candidate town halls before a strictly friendly audience are indisputably one of the worst possible ways for news outlets to help the public make an informed choice at the ballot box.
Holding a politician accountable to the facts across the universe of possible topics is a herculean task for a journalist in the best of circumstances, and impossible in a town hall format that’s set up more like a campaign rally than a serious journalistic forum. In 2020, Donald Trump’s strategy of overwhelming interlocutors with lies rendered even the debate format essentially useless (FAIR.org, 10/2/20)—and that was with an opponent and a respectful audience.
The public needs to understand the candidates they’ll be choosing from next year, which means news outlets must offer them a platform. But the kind of platform offereCreate d is crucial. In the Trump era, town halls simply don’t offer the tools necessary to hold politicians accountable, whether that politician is Trump or Kennedy, DeSantis or Biden.
Good journalism demands one-on-one encounters with the candidates, with incisive questions that speak to people’s actual needs and concerns, and real-time factchecking (or a taped format with factchecking provided prior to airing). If candidates can’t agree to a platform that can hold them accountable, they don’t deserve to have a media platform at all.
Julie Hollar is FAIR’s senior analyst and managing editor. Julie has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
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