Former president Donald Trump and CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins at a CNN town-hall event in Manchester, N.H., on May 10, 2023. Image Credit: CNN photo by Will Lanzoni

CNN host Kaitlan Collins has spent years in proximity to the lies of Donald Trump. She rose to stardom covering the 45th president, asking tough questions in the White House briefing room and experiencing the wrath of the Trump administration’s anti-media policies: In 2018, she was banned from a news conference for allegedly asking “inappropriate” questions.

So Collins knows better than to say what she said in the midst of Wednesday night’s CNN town-hall event with Trump. “The election was not rigged, Mr. President,” she said after yet another Trump lie about his loss to Joe Biden in 2020. “You can’t keep saying that all night long.”

This was truism disguised as political insight. Of course, Trump won’t relinquish his election theories. Heck, he was pushing that line before the 2020 election.

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For Bash and the CNN crew, however, it was necessary to attribute some degree of enlightenment to the 70 minutes of same-old, same-old to which CNN treated its viewers. Critics, after all, had piled on the network for presenting this event in the first place, protesting in the run-up that it was platforming Trump.

I deplore opinions about events that have yet to take place, yet CNN did little to prove the value of this venture. John King, the network’s veteran political analyst, hinted at the emptiness of the evening: “He is who he is, and he is who he was.”

Why did CNN do the town hall?

For one, Trump is the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, as Collins noted when she introduced the former president. For another, this is what CNN does. Town halls, debates, live coverage on location — CNN is a breaking-news colossus that loves nothing more than making its own breaking news.

As this column reported, the network distinguished itself in the manic 2016 presidential campaign by holding six primary debates and seven town halls. Who praised the logistical genius and professional acumen of CNN around that time?

None other than then-RNC Communications Director (and future White House press secretary) Sean Spicer, who told us, “They have a complete team of top-notch professionals.”

That team of top-notch professionals, as it turns out, can’t design a format that does two things at once: present a live interview with Trump while at the same time providing viewers with a comprehensive inventory of true and false claims. Collins did well in her role as on-the-fly fact-checker, but she couldn’t keep up with the volume.

CNN repeatedly broadcast live feeds of Trump’s arena rallies during the 2016 presidential cycle. Critics blamed the network for Trump’s rise, though CNN’s competitors also did a lot of the same programming.

Jeff Zucker, then the network’s president, later rued the live rallies. “If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run,” he said as Election Day approached.

A new management

Chairman and CEO Chris Licht has tried to cast the network in a centrist mold, an effort that has included appealing to Republicans to come on the air more often. Wednesday night marked the first time since the 2016 campaign that Trump appeared in person on CNN programming.

What we saw was by no means a fiasco of the magnitude of Zucker’s live rallies, but it had two of the same components — Trump flooding the venue with theories and the audience responding with cheers. And Trump knew the crowd would work with him.

Comprised of Republicans and otherwise undeclared voters planning to participate in the 2024 GOP primary, it was salted with friendlies. Trump stomached his revulsion for his network hosts in exchange for a home crowd of sorts — a group that no doubt enjoyed watching the main attraction steamroll an earnest, fact-checking network host.

CNN hasn’t figured this thing out, and it’s a good bet its competitors have no better ideas.

Washington Post

Erik Wemple is an American journalist who works as a columnist and media critic