David Zaslav, CEO of CNN’s parent company, recently defended the decision to host a live town hall with former President Donald J. Trump, calling the event “important to the United States.”
It turned out to be so, but perhaps not for the reasons that Mr. Zaslav intended.
In an invigorating and sometimes unnerving broadcast on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump, who appeared on CNN for the first time since 2016, unleashed a shooting of falsehoodssometimes too quickly for her listener, host Kaitlan Collins, to intervene.
Time and time again, Trump falsely claimed that the 2020 election was rigged. He called E.Jean Carroll a “crazy job” and attacked her in misogynistic terms. He defended the January 6 Capitol protesters.
Ms. Collins, composed in the face of Trump’s turmoil, interrupted, interceded, corrected, and called out the former president for his lies. He often responded by talking directly about her. When Mr. Trump finally lost his temper and mocked Ms. Collins as a “nasty person,” some in the live audience cheered.
This was a preview of what American journalism can expect from a 2024 campaign starring Trump, who, despite his ubiquity in political life, has rarely appeared on mainstream television outside of Fox News since leaving office. .
If the 2016 campaign showed many Americans could not agree on common facts, the Babel-like nature of Wednesday’s New Hampshire town hall suggested voters now occupy entirely different universes. Trump parroted a web of conspiracies about a stolen election and the “beautiful day” riot on Capitol Hill, language likely to confuse half the audience and resonate like gospel with the rest.
“The election was not rigged, Mr. President,” Collins said at one point. “You can’t keep saying that all night.” (He kept saying it.)
Ms. Collins, a rising star on CNN who is being considered for a featured 9 pm slot on the network, was a good choice as moderator. She has covered Trump for years, knows his quirks, and was not intimidated when Trump tried to intimidate her.
Even Mr. Trump looked perplexed when Ms. Collins asked, succinctly: “Do you want Ukraine to win this war?” (He did not give a direct answer.) She relentlessly pressed him on whether she would sign a federal abortion ban, noting, “You didn’t say yes or no.” (Again, Mr. Trump declined to say.)
Still, Ms. Collins could only do so much as the sole journalist on stage. It quickly became apparent that the crowd of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were deeply skeptical of his efforts to rein in Trump. The format of the town hall, where there was much applause as the former president mocked Ms. Collins, made it even more difficult for her to carry out his task. (CNN said it brought the audience together in consultation with community groups, faith-based organizations, local Republicans and the Saint Anselm College student government.)
As the broadcast ended, after Trump briefly shook Collins’s hand and said, “Great job,” the cameras cut to a panel of unusually subdued CNN analysts.
“We don’t have enough time to verify every lie he told,” said host Jake Tapper. Some CNN critics had made the same point before Wednesday’s broadcast, and again afterward: that it was unwise to allow Trump to speak live to millions of people during prime time.
Trump’s penchant for spreading falsehoods is well established. Even Fox News, which has provided friendly forums for the former president with conservative stars like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, has not taken Trump live for many months.
He is also the de facto leader of the Republican Party, which means his comments are inherently newsworthy to voters on the cusp of a new presidential campaign. CNN said in a statement late Wednesday that his advice reflected the “role and responsibility of the network: getting answers and holding the powerful to account.”
Producers and journalists from the other major television networks watched CNN on Wednesday with curiosity, skepticism and perhaps a little fear.
If Mr. Trump remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, he’ll soon be appearing on your airwaves.