NEW YORK – CNN is facing a backlash over its town hall featuring former President Donald Trump, an event that swiftly turned chaotic in a stark display of the tightrope facing journalists covering a leading 2024 Republican candidate who refuses to play by the rules.
The town hall Wednesday was the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign, and CNN defended its decision to hold it as a chance to put Trump in front of a wider audience, outside of the conservative media bubble he has largely kept to since early in his presidency.
Critics said the event, which was staged in front of Republicans and unaffiliated voters who were expected to vote in the GOP primary, instead turned into a Trump campaign rally and allowed him to repeat longstanding falsehoods while dodging difficult questions
Tom Jones, a senior writer at the media research institute Poynter, said he had favored the idea of CNN holding the town hall at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. But he said he was surprised by the conduct of the audience, which he had expected to be more neutral.
Instead, the crowd gave Trump a standing ovation when he walked onstage, applauded some of his most provocative comments and laughed at many of his quips, including when he criticized E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who accused him of raping her in 1996 and this week won a $5 million judgment against him.
Jones said the atmosphere put CNN's moderator, Kaitlan Collins, in an almost impossible position as she tried to elicit straightforward answers from Trump and fact-check his comments about the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by his supporters and the 2020 election, which he still falsely insists he won.
“Whenever she might have had him cornered, he was built up by the audience,” Jones said. “It just emboldened him. He realized, ‘I can do or say anything I want,’ and she got steamrolled at that point through no fault of her own. It was her against the entire room."
The event was indicative of the new era of leadership at CNN and management’s efforts to lure back viewers who turned to Fox News and other conservative outlets over the past decade.
At a Thursday morning meeting at CNN, Chairman and CEO Chris Licht praised Collins’ “masterful performance,” saying she asked tough questions in difficult circumstances.
“If someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, that damn well should be on CNN,” he said in a recording of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press.
He also defended the decision to hold the town hall before a Trump-friendly crowd.
“While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story, because the people in that audience represent a large swath of America,” Licht said. “And the mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist. Just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists.”
The event did widen CNN's audience, at least for a night. Nielson said the town hall averaged 3.3 million viewers, compared to the 707,000 who tuned in to CNN during the same time slot a night earlier.
But Jones said he was skeptical that the town hall would help CNN's reputation in the long term, given the backlash. He noted that most of the network's post-event commentary was highly critical of Trump, likely alienating conservative viewers who had tuned in just to watch the former president.
Nick Arama, a writer for the conservative website RedState.com, criticized CNN's Gary Tuchman, who spoke with some of the audience members after Trump's appearance, saying “he didn't act as much like a moderator trying to get their opinion as a Democratic propagandist trying to impose his own opinion on them.”
Meanwhile, critics from the left were unsparing, saying CNN should have predicted how chaotic the event would be.
“CNN should be ashamed of themselves. They have lost total control of this ‘town hall’ to again be manipulated into platforming election disinformation, defenses of Jan. 6th and a public attack on a sexual abuse victim. The audience is cheering him on and laughing at the host,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, wrote in a tweet.
Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief now at George Washington University, said the event was a harbinger of the difficult coverage decisions “every news organization needs to wrestle with because Donald Trump is not a normal candidate.”
“You can’t ignore him, but you can’t give him carte blanche either,” he said.
A one-on-one interview would have been preferable, though whether Trump would have agreed to that is a different question, said Sesno, who added that he saw value in allowing Trump to speak to a broader audience, including many people who might have mostly tuned him out in recent years.
Sesno noted that although Trump supporters delighted in his performance, Republican critics, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, seized on it to to press their concerns about the former president's ability to win a national election.
“As chaotic and weird as the event was, I as a journalist think it’s important for people to see this,” he said.
Associated Press writer Wyatte Grantham-Philips contributed to this report.