May 27, 2023

Lessons from the CNN Trump Town Hall

No doubt, many are still reeling from the Donald Trump town hall staged on CNN earlier this month. The former president was questioned by Kaitlan Collins before an audience of seemingly rabid Trump devotees.

Although Collins asked reasonable questions and tried valiantly to elicit relevant answers, she failed to force Trump to answer what was asked or to prevent him from lying boldly and repeatedly. A particularly distressing aspect of the town hall was the enthusiastic audience reaction to Trump’s falsehoods and outrageous assertations. The town hall was nothing so much as a mini-Trump rally.

Whereas CNN was widely criticized for its Trump circus, the network defended its presentation as a service to the nation, exhibiting the true character of the once and future president. Trump, of course, exhibited no surprises.

We already knew that Trump was a sociopath and pathological liar. His performance was perfectly predictable. CNN did perhaps offer insights into the MAGA phenomenon. The town hall made clear that all too many Trump supporters are at least as devoid of compassion, thoughtfulness, and commitment to democratic ideals as is the object of their perverse affection. And CNN demonstrated how difficult it is for a normal journalist to get Donald Trump to behave like a normal interviewee. Collins attracted criticism for her failure to control Trump, but she did sincerely try. But she was overmatched.

It is to be hoped that the CNN debacle—for that’s what it was—will have taught journalists and their managers lessons they will take into the developing campaign for the GOP presidential nomination and, God forbid, beyond. Those lessons, of course, should already have been learned.

Lesson number one for the journalistic community is that Trump deserves the same sort of coverage provided to other candidates. He might never have become president had not his deranged rallies been covered on television as if they were as important as a State of the Union Address or a Superbowl. (They may have been so for ratings, but the health of the Republic is more important than ratings.) Trump enjoyed more free media than any candidate before him. Repeated and extended exposure to Trump propaganda unleashed the darkest impulses of susceptible viewers. Journalists should excerpt Trump rallies and town halls, not cover them slavishly from start to finish.

Like any candidate, journalists will want to interview Trump. Fine. But interviews should never be broadcast live. As was so graphically demonstrated in the CNN town hall, Trump’s steamroller tactics can easily control an interview despite the interviewer’s intentions. Recorded interviews can be edited to minimize Trump indirection. Better still, when a question is asked and Trump does not answer it, the question should be asked again, possibly in a slightly different form. An unanswered question should be asked as many times as necessary to elicit either an actual answer or an explicit admission by the candidate that he is refusing to give an answer. It may be tempting to edit out the back-and-forth attempt to evoke an answer, but that temptation should be resisted. Viewers should see Trump’s evasiveness for what it is. An interview should not have an audience, and the press should think twice about extensive coverage of any event at which an audience has excluded any but Trump supporters. Fox News will, of course, ignore all this advice.

Finally, there is the matter of campaign debates (or whatever it is that we stage every four years). Although debates can be excerpted for newscasts, the events themselves must be offered live to the public. Neither moderators nor other candidates have shown the ability to control the Trump juggernaut. Moderators (or producers behind the scene) need to be given a secret weapon against Trump bluster. That secret weapon is a microphone switch. Trump’s microphone should be on when he has the right to speak and off when he does not. Fairness, or the appearance of fairness, demands that other candidates be treated the same way. Debate producers should also demand other rules designed to facilitate civil discourse. These might include tolerating only a brief period before a candidate begins a relevant response to a question. If a candidate blatantly digresses, the secret weapon can be used. Also, ad hominem attacks should be prohibited and likewise dealt with. Criticizing a candidate’s actions or policies is fair game. Name-calling or criticizing a candidate’s person should be off-limits. This includes Trump’s insulting names for his competitors.

In reality, I suspect that Trump, as the flamboyant narcissist that he is, will indeed get more free media than he deserves. I hope that it is less than formerly. A second Trump presidency would be a catastrophe for humanity.

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