"What was gained from this?": Trump's CNN town hall was a failure

"Journalism is in trouble. Serious, serious trouble"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 15, 2023 7:09AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the 2023 NRA-ILA Leadership Forum on April 14, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the 2023 NRA-ILA Leadership Forum on April 14, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Donald Trump remains a juggernaut. He came, he saw, and he conquered during his appearance on CNN last week as he spouted the Big Lie and many other smaller ones about the 2020 Election and other subjects, praised the Jan. 6 coup attempt and his terrorist foot soldiers who attacked and overran the Capitol, spouted white supremacist and misogynistic invective, and continued his assault on reality and common decency. 

That Trump would be so victorious during his CNN town hall was predictable – and by design. CNN rigged the outcome in his favor by filling the audience with Republicans, right-leaning independents, and other Trump voters. The audience was told not to boo or otherwise show disapproval or "disrespect" for the former president. Kaitlan Collins, the host, was utterly unprepared for his lies and thus no match for Trump.

When CEO Chris Licht took over CNN last year, he promised to pivot the network in a more "balanced" direction that was more "mainstream." Hosts and other voices who were consistently critical of Trump would be silenced (or fired). CNN's new regime also committed itself to false balance and false equivalency where the Republican and MAGA movement who are trying to end multiracial democracy are presented as a reasonable alternative to the Democrats within the broad mainstream of American politics instead of as an existential threat to the future of the country and its democracy.

Of course, CNN's decision to neuter criticism of Trump and his movement – and to host the traitor president's fake town hall is motivated by ratings, money and profits. (CNN's Trump town hall was viewed by at least 3 million people). As the truism goes, "If it bleeds it leads." To that point, during the 2016 presidential campaign and through to his squatting in the White House, Trump has made the American news media billions of dollars in ad revenue. So despite the obvious dangers to the public good and the overall safety and well-being of the American people, the American news media continues to normalize Trump and the Republican fascists and the larger MAGA movement. The Trumpocene nightmare endures not despite the American news media but in many ways because of it.

In an attempt to make better sense of what the Trump CNN town hall spectacle really means, what it reflects (or not) about the American news media, and where we are in the Trumpocene and the larger democracy crisis as the 2024 presidential season is gaining focus, I asked a range of experts for their insights and predictions.

Wajahat Ali is the author of "Go Back To Where You Came From." He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast, Medium, MSNBC Daily, and co-host of the Democracy-Ish Podcast.

The Trump CNN Town Hall exemplified everything wrong and broken about our incestuous corporate media institutions that value ratings, money, and access to power above all else, including the truth, accountability, and democracy. Apparently, a face-eating leopard eats faces. Who would've thought? That analogy describes CNN leadership's reckless and shameful decision to give Trump 70 minutes in front of a fawning, cultish audience to spew his hateful lies and retconning of reality. It should be a lesson for all other outlets, but no one will learn, even after our democracy was attacked on January 6th and Trump himself refers to the media as the "enemy of the people." Everyone at the network should be embarrassed.

My expectations were very low and somehow the bar was lowered to the point you had to slither underneath. It was a ghoulish, dangerous spectacle that traded journalistic integrity, CNN's reputation, and the security of our democracy for ratings, access to power and money. And it even failed in that respect. The clown circus only got 3 million viewers, but Trump got a free 70-minute Festivus to air his grievances and conspiracy theories that will further radicalize and weaponized his cult. What was gained from this? Nothing. 

Mainstream, corporate media reminds us that its north star remains ratings, access to power and money above all else. Licht was allegedly ecstatic after the dumpster fire town hall. He said their job was to "make news." No, CNN, your job is to report the news, but Licht and (Warner Bros. Discover CEO David) Zaslav have decided that every voice, especially MAGA voices, deserve a platform, but those who are critical of the town hall, such as their own reporter Oliver Darcy, must be reprimanded. Historically, those in power have always paved the road toward fascism. They are complicit through their feigned neutrality. After all, it's just business, right? Freedom and democracy. be damned. Corporate media has failed us for the 8 years and they will continue to fail us moving forward. 

John Whitehouse is news director for Media Matters for America, a nonprofit watchdog group. 

I expected the journalistic side of CNN to do their best with the shit sandwich handed to them by CNN and WBD executives who were clearly invested in welcoming Trump. And that's exactly how it played out, and how it will play out on CNN going forward. The rank-and-file workers will, in general, try their best, but there's only so much they can do given the dynamics imposed upon them.

The event is a reminder of both the power and importance of media and telecom executives writ large. Media consolidation has given the likes of John Malone and David Zaslav enormous power, and they will wield that as suits their own needs – not the needs of the public.

We should not get too fixated on the likes of Kaitlan Collins. She had some good moments and some less-than good moments, but she was not the problem on Wednesday night. And as we've seen very recently on cable news, hosts are very replaceable. People higher up the food chain are the bigger problem and I'd encourage people to focus there.

Rachel Bitecofer is a political analyst and election forecaster.  

Because American news media outlets must turn profits, it is a ratings driven-business. And what media show is driven in large part by what American consumers watch and because of low civic literacy and our weak political culture, ratings have proven over and over again that Americans will not watch dry, hard news. The reason our media relies on sensationalism and controversy so much, is that is what it takes to get Americans to engage. This is why analyses have found that fake news vastly outperforms real news on social. The fake news taps right into the American psyche. I cover this extensively in my forthcoming book "Hit Em' Where It Hurts: How to Save Democracy by Beating Republicans at Their Own Game."

Coverage of Trump is geared around the principle that people want to gawk at car wrecks, in other words, it is a reflection of the people it serves.

Norm Ornstein is emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and contributing editor for The Atlantic. He is also co-author of the bestselling books "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."

I thought from the get-go that this was a catastrophic move by CNN.

First, the general principle: you don't give the legitimacy that comes with a showcase on a major cable network to an inciter of violent insurrection who is under criminal indictment and on trial for sexual abuse and defamation of character. The rationale — that he is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination —does not overcome the fact that he will exploit the showcase. Second, the town hall format is a formula for allowing deception and evasion. It does not allow a moderator or other interlocutors to dig in, ask multiple questions and follow-ups. Rarely does a question from an audience member strike home. Third, the CNN decision to make the audience one filled with Trump fans was a recipe for utter disaster.

It proved to be even worse than I thought. Kaitlin Collins could not address every one of Trump's lies, and let some, like Trump despicably saying Democrats were for ripping nine-month babies from wombs and killing them, go completely unrefuted. She was played by Trump, over and over, with the audience laughing at her rather than responding to her facts. That the audience gave him a standing ovation at the beginning, and laughed and applauded when he slimed E. Jean Carroll (again), and approved his claim that if reelected he would pardon most of the insurrectionists, was an embarrassment to CNN and the country.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Sadly, as I read that two of the most respected journalists of their generation, Ted Koppel and Bob Schieffer, were all in on the CNN town hall, it underscored for me two stark realities.

First, Trump remains a ratings lure, and he will get more and more exposure, not just from CNN. Second, the repetition of lies —CNN followed its town hall by showcasing, in its panels, another election denier, Byron Daniels, and followed the next day by having a third election denier, Brian Mast, get away unchallenged with his lies — is still core to mainstream media coverage of Republicans. The desire to normalize the abnormal, to show that you are fair and balanced, gives more traction and legitimacy to authoritarian scoundrels. We have even rockier times ahead.

Cheri Jacobus is a former media spokesperson at the Republican National Committee and founder and president of the political consulting and PR firm Capitol Strategies PR.

Sadly, the CNN Trump town hall was exactly as anyone not in a coma for the past 8 years expected. By hosting the event, CNN reminded all of us of the supreme role they played in creating Trump as the 2016 GOP nominee and President. "Keep the cameras on him [Trump] till the eyeballs leave" is what then-CNN chief Jeff Zucker ordered staff at a meeting where they expressed concerns over the damage CNN was causing by the extreme amount of coverage they were handing Trump, while all but ignoring the other GOP presidential primary candidates.

That CNN's Chris Licht is now sending out previously-respected, trusted news personalities such as Anderson Cooper to scold us for not embracing their largesse in providing America a view into what a second Trump presidency would look like, they insult us even further, since we were all here for the 1st Trump presidency. A presidency that likely would never have taken place without the complicity of CNN (among others). Many of us are struggling with the question of just how are we in this place again -- or still.

CNN sent out a cub reporter ("rising star" who got her start working for Tucker Carlson and now is reportedly getting her own prime time show) for this herculean job that would have been an uphill battle for even the most seasoned of political reporters. CNN did this to placate Trump, to help manifest the sick circus that unfolded, just as they wanted. Journalism is in trouble. Serious, serious trouble. And when journalism is in trouble, democracy is in trouble.

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and the author of "Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President."

Until the last minute, my general expectations of the CNN Trump town hall were that CNN might cancel it, especially after Trump had been found liable for sexual abuse and defamation just the previous day. In fact, I hoped it would be canceled.

The reasons were many. First, findings from my extensive psychoanalytic study of Trump in my book "Trump on the Couch" are that he is unable to moderate, let alone change his abusive and evasive behavior. Given that the jury verdict was fresh in his disordered mind, Trump was certain to be at his most enraged and unhinged. Second was that CNN, once considered a respected news organization, would surely avoid seeming to endorse Trump's paranoia, lying, and general destructiveness. A live, televised town hall would only serve to legitimize and normalize his sexual predations and orchestration of the January 6, 2021, coup attempt.

In choosing to air this debacle, CNN revealed its own Trumpian greed and disregard for democracy.  Like the Republican Party, Warner Bros. Discovery (the corporate owners of CNN) are willing to have their once prestige brand smeared with Proud Boy feces in hopes of attracting more rubes and revenue. It was as if CNN and Trump were marching along together, holding hands as they rubbed our collective noses in six years of political stench. Though I maintain that Trump should never receive this kind of airtime, I've often considered how I would conduct an interview with the disgraced former president –preferably in a locked ward with the subject in a straitjacket.

As someone who is deeply concerned with political life and the future of America, I'm first and foremost a psychoanalyst who knows that America's future depends in large part on the emotional health of our elected leaders. The first questions I would ask Trump are, "Did Biden's victory break your heart? Is that why you kept, and still keep, insisting that Biden didn't win, that the election was rigged? Were you that certain that you would win the 2020 election?"

I'd assist my patient in his reflection by pointing out that I think it was easier for him to claim the election was rigged than to face the humiliation of losing and the knowledge that his defeat was public. I'd follow up by asking if he initiated the January 6 coup to feed his denial and help him feel less alone by turning his grief into their outrage.

I've long wanted to ask Trump what it's like to be such a successful con man. I hope someone will have the opportunity to do just that once he is brought to justice for the acts of treason he committed and the irreparable collateral damage which divided our civil society. Perhaps a few minutes of attention and a hamburger will finally persuade him to face the truth. Though it will never set him free, it might set us free.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Big Lie Cnn Democracy Crisis Disinformation Donald Trump Fascism Interview Propaganda