CNN leadership under fire after ‘disastrous’ Trump town hall

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Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Michael Fanone as an officer of the US Capitol Police. At the time of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, he was a DC police officer.

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CNN’s prime-time broadcast of a raucous town hall with Donald Trump propelled a tsunami of criticism from inside and outside the network Thursday – and renewed questions about how the news media will handle the challenge of covering the serial falsehoods of the Republican Party’s leading candidate going into the 2024 election.

The former president repeatedly dodged or sneered at questions from CNN’s moderator, Kaitlan Collins, during the live, 70-minute forum at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire on Wednesday night. He doubled down on false claims that “a rigged election” led to his 2020 ouster and referred to writer E. Jean Carroll, who just prevailed in her lawsuit against him for defamation and battery, as a “whack job,” to cheers and laughter from the audience, made up of local Republican voters.

And when Collins pressed him on why he removed classified documents from the White House, he replied: “You are a nasty person.”

“Predictably disastrous,” wrote former network TV news executive Mark Lukasiewicz, part of a chorus of media critics and political observers who bemoaned the on-air spectacle. “Live lying works. A friendly MAGA crowd consistently laughs, claps at Trump’s punchlines . . . and the moderator cannot begin to keep up with the AR-15 pace of lies.”

At a time when CNN has been struggling to turn around viewership decline, the telecast proved to be a ratings disappointment, with Nielsen reporting just 3.1 million viewers overall. That was a big boost over CNN’s typical 8 pm telecast, but a smaller audience than CNN’s town hall with President Biden last summer (3.7 million) and six previous Trump town halls carried by Fox News – calling into question both CNN and Trump’s drawing power.

The more profound impact, however, may be the damage done to the reputation of the network that has long promoted itself as “the most trusted name in news.” It also raised questions about the future prospects of chief executive Chris Licht, who replaced Trump-friend-turned critic Jeff Zucker last year and is charged with striking a more neutral tone at a cable channel that exploded with impassioned comments during the Trump years.

Journalists at CNN and others outside the organization called the town hall a “debacle,” a “disaster” and “CNN’s lowest moment.” On Twitter, the hashtags and phrases BoycottCNN, DoneWithCNN and ByeCNN trended late Wednesday.

The thrust of the criticism was that CNN’s format, which it has used for other candidates over the years, enabled Trump’s filibustering and thwarted real-time fact checking, allowing him to present a dishonest rehashing of his record. “In terms of sheer control of the stage and WWE-style platform dynamics, the horrible truth is that this outcome was preordained,” tweeted veteran political writer James Fallows. Some compared the program to a modified Trump campaign rally – the kind that CNN sometimes aired live during the 2015-16 campaign cycle, which Zucker later said he regretted.

Licht defended the decision to host Trump in this format during his regular morning meeting with network staff on Thursday.

“I am aware that there have been people with opinions [and] backlash, and that is absolutely expected,” he said, according to an audio recording. “And I’ll say this as clearly as I possibly can: You do not have to like the former president’s answers, but you can’t say we didn’t get them. . . . America was served very well by what we did last night. People woke up and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way they didn’t the day before.”

Licht also hailed Collins’ “masterful performance” as moderator and called her “a rock star.”

Licht, however, was hammered by his own journalists. “We did it wrong,” said an on-air personality. “We treated him like a normal politician who could be fact-checked. We ended up dancing around a demagogue.”

“It should have been a taped interview where you could fact-check him,” said one CNN correspondent who, like the on-air personality spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships and careers. “The audience was laughing at his comments about Jean Carroll. Disgraceful.”

In his meeting with staff, Licht defended the decisions that led to a cheering, partisan audience: “That was also an important part of the story because the people in that audience represented a large swath of America. And the mistake the media made in the past is ignoring those people exist.”

Another staffer, also speaking in the background to avoid retaliation, suggested Licht and other executives who approved the event should resign.

It seems an unlikely outcome – for now. Publicly at least, Licht has had the backing of his boss, Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive David Zaslav. Asked for comment Thursday, a company spokesperson pointed to Zaslav’s interview on CNBC last week in which he stood by his lieutenant and brushed off some of the criticism that erupted after the town hall was announced. (“We have a divided government. Right? We need to hear both voices,” Zaslav said at the time. “All voices should be heard.”)

One executive close to Zaslav said that both the board and the executives understand that the news business is difficult right now and that they are prepared to give CNN ample time to find its footing.

Nevertheless, the Trump town hall is shaping up as another disappointment under Licht’s watch. Despite his tinkering with CNN’s daily lineup and a mandate to reposition the network as a neutral purveyor of news, Licht has been unable to stop its ratings from sliding to historic lows.

Licht’s signature programming effort, the remodeling of CNN’s morning program, has largely fallen apart with the firing of co-anchor Don Lemon last month. Collins, a rising star at the network, was also moved to mornings to anchor with him last fall. People within the company expect that she will be promoted to the 9 pm hour, which has not had a permanent host since CNN fired Chris Cuomo in December 2021. And a person close to the decision-making said that the town hall controversy will not alter Licht’s plans for her.

CNN’s daily media newsletter, Reliable Sources, was blunt in its assessment of Wednesday’s event. “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening,” reporter Oliver Darcy wrote on Wednesday night.

But the squadron of analysts and commentators that CNN put on the air late Wednesday to assess Trump’s performance in the town hall (“We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie he was told,” said anchor Jake Tapper) said nothing about the network’s own decision to host the forum.

At least one of the network’s paid commentators went public with his objections before the Trump special aired. Michael Fanone, a DC police officer who was injured while defending the Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, wrote an essay published by Rolling Stone that indicted the programming decision.

“Putting him on stage, having him answer questions like a normal candidate who didn’t get people killed in the process of trying to end the democracy he’s trying to once again run, normalizes what Trump did,” wrote Fanone. “It sends a message that attempting a coup is just part of the process; that accepting election results is a choice; and that there are no consequences, in the media or in politics or anywhere else, for rejecting them.”

In an interview last week, CNN political director David Chalian justified the event by noting that Trump is the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, and that his “unique” status as a twice-impeached, criminally indicted former president who incited the Jan . 6 Capitol riot, didn’t change the network’s journalism mission.

“You’d be hard-pressed to say [the format] is less revealing than a one-on-one interview,” he said.

Chalian did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. CNN spokesman Matt Dornic said in an email, “I think Chris captured our position well this morning’s [editorial] meetings.”

Trump, for one, expressed satisfaction with the event. “Hope everyone enjoyed CNN tonight,” he wrote on his social media platform Truth Social. “The New Hampshire audience was AMAZING. Thank you!”

But inside CNN, the mood was dark.

“I can’t believe anyone thought this was a good idea,” said one staffer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid career repercussions. “I’ve been a CNN journalist for many years. I’ve always been so proud to say that. I’ve never, ever been ashamed of CNN until tonight.”

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The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison contributed to this report.

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