CNN brass defends Trump town hall amid criticism

Raucous televised event draws criticism from both network staff and viewers.
Donald Trump spent 70 minutes at a CNN Town Hall on May 10, 2023 with CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins. (Screenshot)

Credit: Screenshot

Credit: Screenshot

Donald Trump spent 70 minutes at a CNN Town Hall on May 10, 2023 with CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins. (Screenshot)

CNN is under fire for letting Donald Trump’s propaganda-filled social media feed come to life on its airwaves. Now there are questions about whether its strategy to be more even-keeled will float.

Since Warner Bros. merged with Discovery last year and new management took over CNN, there has been a clear effort to reverse the perception that the Atlanta-born network has become liberal leaning.

So far, new CNN chief Chris Licht’s efforts to be more nonpartisan, focusing more on news and less on opinion, have not garnered positive results. Instead, viewership is flagging, ad revenue is down and internal morale has taken a hit.

It’s unclear whether the CNN town hall with Donald Trump Wednesday night helped CNN’s brand. It attracted 3.3 million viewers, more than triple what Anderson Cooper normally gets in that 8 p.m. time slot.

The trust factor

“Trust is really the alpha factor here,” said Tom Farmer, a former CNN “Larry King Live” executive producer. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do events like this town hall elevate trust in a news brand or degrade it?’”

To Licht, the town hall was a way for rising star Kaitlan Collins to hold Trump’s feet to the fire and bolster CNN’s journalistic image.

Soon after the event ended, CNN released a statement, seemingly cognizant of the social media blowback already in progress: “Tonight, Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist. She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner. That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”

But 15 minutes after that statement, CNN’s own media reporter Oliver Darcy in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter slammed his employer, noting that “it’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.” While he complimented Collins for being “tough and knowledgeable,” he said she was unable to fluster Trump or make him acknowledge or take responsibility for his lies.

Josh Levs, who worked at CNN from 2002 to 2015 and is now an independent communications consultant, said CNN’s decision to place Trump in a live venue was a massive mistake. “Any person who is a proven liar should never be put on live,” he said. “I don’t care who they are or what title they have. This concept of trying to cleave to the middle is useless if you are going to platform liars.”

“The network needs to have a reckoning on what it did,” said Rich Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. “How it managed the event, how it let it get out of control. Someone on Twitter said that CNN set Kaitlan Collins up to fail. I agree with that perspective.”

He said if this was an effort to win over Fox News viewers, it was ineffective. “This is a one-off event,” Hanley said. “Unless you feed those fans regular meat every day, they won’t come back. Unless CNN turns into a version of Fox, it won’t get any long-term traction from this.”

Hanley believes many regular CNN viewers were so turned off by the town hall, they may never go back, calling this a “net loss” for a network that is already struggling with viewership and imaging.

Behind the camera

But while many CNN employees were furious that this town hall even happened and how it was executed, Licht spent several minutes Thursday during the daily 9 a.m. call defending it, according to Brian Stelter, CNN’s former media writer, who received the internal comments and posted them on Twitter.

“Kaitlan pressed him again and again and made news. Made a lot of news,” Licht said. And “that is our job.” He believed “America was served very well by what we did last night.”

Licht said “while we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story,” noting that the audience represents “a large swath of America.”

CNN followed its standard town hall practice of packing the audience with partisan voters who normally vote in primaries, but it sometimes sounded more like a WWE wrestling match than a sober political forum.

The most memorable part of the town hall was the crowd cheering and laughing when Trump insulted E. Jean Carroll, the woman who had won a civil case against him on Tuesday for sexual assault and when he called Collins “nasty.”

“That suggests a Roman Colosseum dynamic that you would not want to promote under normal circumstances,” Farmer said.

In the days before the town hall, Trump boasted on social media that CNN had offered “a deal I couldn’t refuse.” Our inquiries about what they deal might have been have gone unanswered.

Paul Levinson, a media studies professor at Fordham University, felt exposing swing CNN voters to more Trump was not necessarily a bad thing. “I can’t say unequivocally that CNN was completely wrong to put this spectacle on TV,” he said. “The man was president. He did win the electoral college once. There’s a good chance he will be the Republican nominee in 2024. So I can see Chris Licht’s argument.”

A CNN employee who regularly interacts with Licht but declined to be identified was not surprised by his strong defense of the town hall. “He thinks it was a good idea,” the employee said. “That’s his style. Never let them see you sweat. He’d say, ‘We had our reasons. It worked out beautifully for us.’ I think a lot of people disagree.”

Steve Stahl, a former director of operations for CNN who worked at the company for 27 years, said alumni reaction to the town hall on the Facebook CNN alumni page, which has 3,300 members, varied widely. He himself likes the way Licht has reduced the amount of analysts and commentators on the network over the past year. “It’s more reporter heavy and package heavy,” he said. “I’m seeing positive changes.”

He also felt seeing the audience react the way they did was “both scary and enlightening given what has happened the last few years.”

CNN is facing some major headwinds when it comes to its image among Republicans. A recent survey conducted by YouGov and The Economist showed Republicans viewed CNN and MSNBC the worst out of 56 media outlets in the survey. A net negative 37% of Republicans surveyed trusted CNN while a net positive 55% of Democrats did so, the largest disparity of any of 56 media outlets in the survey.

Ratings have fallen off for all three cable networks this year vs. 2022, but CNN has seen especially sharp drops.

CNN’s 25-54 full-day ratings, for instance, recently slipped behind MSNBC for the first time in several years and its primetime numbers trail those of its rivals.

Licht revamped the morning show last fall, moving Don Lemon from primetime to co-host mornings with Poppy Harlow and Collins. But tepid ratings and Lemon’s sexist comments about women contributed to his recent departure. Licht has also streamlined the daytime line up with a stronger reliance on hard news and is adding a weekly show this fall featuring Gayle King and Charles Barkley.

Variety magazine said Collins is positioned to get the 9 p.m. prime-time slot left by Chris Cuomo last year after he was fired for violating CNN’s journalistic standards when he helped his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, deal with sexual harassment allegations leveled against him.