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CNN’s town hall with Trump misses the mark, critics miss the point

Jon Ralston
Jon Ralston

CNN did the right thing; it just did it the wrong way.

In the blizzard of mostly predictable obloquy that has rained down on the network since the Donald Trump town hall, so much of it has been full of sound and fury, signifying what’s wrong with politics and the media. The Validation Culture, where people prefer the comfort of their own bubbles and have substituted critical screeching for critical thinking, once again has taken hold.

Democracy is under siege in this country, thanks to Trump and his enablers, but the inability of the Fourth Estate to seriously try to address the growing alienation of reasonable people from civic life and duty only accelerates this decline. We in the media, often castigated for our cynicism, cannot surrender to the notion that we can’t help the vast majority of people who want to understand an increasingly chaotic and complex world.

Which brings me back to what occurred for 70 minutes on that stage in New Hampshire on Wednesday evening. It had so much potential, which, alas, quickly faded. Before I delve into my thoughts on the spectacle, a quick word about my bona fides here:

I have been watching politics closely for more than three and a half decades, nearly half of that spent interviewing politicians and others on television.  I prided myself on being tough but fair, having thoughtful conversations if the subject answered the questions and sometimes-confrontational ones if the interviewee evaded. I had wonderful, smart teams around me who helped me prepare for the interviews, and the Boy Scout motto has never been more relevant here than it is today.

Having said that, some points:

---I find it stunning, as I told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, that serious people are arguing CNN should not have “given Trump a platform,” or whatever ludicrous phrase is used. He’s a former president and GOP frontrunner for president; it’s not even a close call. No exceptions because Trump is a pathological liar and unlike any candidate in the modern era. You have a chance to get him on a, ahem, platform, do it. I would much, much prefer not to have a live audience, especially a partisan one (I have raised against them for years being allowed in presidential debates because they are distracting). But if that was the price of Trump’s admission, I’d reluctantly agree, knowing my preparation would have to account for it.

---Multitudes of smart people have opined that you cannot interview Trump live because he will drown you in a torrent of falsehoods and misdirections. This is obviously wrong. I loved interviewing people live because there is no escape, short of dropping the mic and walking off the set. (No one ever did that, much to some people’s surprise!) Doing it live also removes any post-interview claims that the conversation was deceptively edited. “Trump is different,” people wail. “He will always ‘win’ in a live venue,” they bleat. No. (By the way, you can always fact-check afterwards, too. The things are not mutually exclusive.)

— Before every interview I conducted, I had a strategy based on who the person was, how he or she was likely to behave and how I should thrust and parry. This is where CNN failed miserably. The higher ups placed anchor Kaitlan Collins in a nearly impossible situation, and no one knows better than I how hard it is to interview obstreperous candidates. But Collins should have been better prepared for Trump, even as she intermittently and gamely tried to call him on his geyser of mendacity. So what should she have done?

— First, ignore the audience, which was admonished not to heckle but that should have been enforced. Second, you must be willing to interrupt Trump and keep interrupting until he answers. Don’t let him change the subject; stop him and take control. He controlled that town hall; that’s my overarching criticism. This is not easy and certainly uncomfortable. But if you are not willing to do so, then don’t do the event. I thought Hamilton Nolan captured the technique that should have been used very well. This is not a Black Swan event; it’s more like a Jonathan Swan event), although he did not have to contend with a live audience. (Repeats admonition not to have audiences.)

— What I believe about Trump is that he is like Col. Nathan Jessup  – he’s itching to take credit for calling the Code Red. In this case, itching to take credit for the coup attempt, to take credit for trying to overturn the election through his efforts in Georgia and elsewhere. All you have to do is keep pushing him, not letting him filibuster, not relenting on the question until he answers, or explodes in fury. The questions should be blunt and repeated: Why do you continue to lie about the 2020 election? Why would you pardon adjudicated criminals who broke into the sacred temple of democracy and wanted to hang Mike Pence? Why did you tell the Georgia secretary of state to find — your words, Mr. President — votes for you? This is our job, and it is immensely difficult.

— Trump is unique in that he will insult you — “nasty person” — but you need to ignore that and move on, or use it: “Is it nasty to try to get the truth to the American people, Mr. President? You are a former president and candidate for president who is repeating lie after lie. Is it nasty to say that?” You may get to ask fewer questions on fewer topics. So be it. But once you cede control of an interview or town hall to the subject, all is lost.

CNN’s defensiveness afterwards only exacerbated the situation and made the jobs for everyone else that much harder:

“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.”

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

Come on. I understand loyalty to your people, but no one objectively thought any of that is true. No one. How embarrassing.

It’s fine to say something like: “We are glad the former president agreed to the event. We think some news was made, but it was far from perfect. This was a learning experience, and we will do better next time.”

You have to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous social media and partisan attacks in places where “cry more” and “I’m sorry this is happening to you” pass for cleverness. Such is the way of the world.

The rules I would apply to Trump apply to all candidates, too. President Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will lie or evade, too, and the same treatment should be given to them. It’s only a difference with Trump of degree and volume.

The post-mortems of the CNN town hall are replete with declarations that it was a disaster, that the media have learned nothing, that Trump won a great victory. None of this is true, especially the latter because his short-run advantage is far outweighed by the general election liabilities he reinforced Wednesday in New Hampshire.

I care deeply about journalism and about democracy, and I would hope that people would focus more on lessons to be learned than this singular event that will be as evanescent as a tweet. Move on.

Our job is to illuminate for the people outside The Validation Culture, to persuade them that all is not lost and that journalism and democracy are important. So now: Let’s do it.


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