Trump vs. CNN broke some news

by Martin Schram

For Donald Trump, who has found it impossible to get positive prime-time attention while whiling in his Mar-a-Elba, Wednesday night seemed like a gift that kept on giving. 

For CNN’s suddenly boggled new executive brain trust, who dreamed and schemed of creating a return to old cable ratings glories, Wednesday night quickly became a reoccurring nightmare. 

But to many of the rest of us who have long witnessed the way things predictably happen in the video theater that is campaign politicking today, the only thing surprising is why anyone could possibly be surprised. The only surprise was that this time, it wasn’t just happening once again, it was happening worse than ever. 

What we all saw was Donald Trump being Donald Trump. America’s 45th president was on stage at CNN’s massively promoted first Town Hall of Campaign 2024, at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College. And doing whatever the hell he wanted to do. 

Trump was recycling all the old lies — about his election defeat, the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection violence, his numerous scandals. Technically, he wasn’t actually getting away with it, because CNN’s smart young anchor, Kaitlan Collins, kept fact-check correcting him, time after time. 

But she never had a chance. Her clue-lite bosses had left her all alone, with none of the on-stage fact-checking backup organization and preparation that wiser TV execs would have anticipated. Every time Trump predictably recycled his standard lies, CNN could have been prepared to whisper in Collins’ ear. And then she could have convincingly aired the audio-video proof that often can be the unique advantage of electronic journalism. 

Such as: Trump predictably denied pressuring Georgia state officials to reverse Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory in that state. Collins could have then aired Trump’s recorded phone call pressuring Georgia state officials to somehow just find him the precise number of votes needed to make it a Trump victory. 

And CNN’s execs shouldn’t have been shocked to see that Trump had one more advantage — a hugely pro-Trump live audience that transformed CNN’s town meeting into a virtual Trump rally. The town hall audience performed as if it was Trump’s sitcom laugh-track and former TV applause pack. They laughed when he dismissed as a “wack job” writer E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of conduct that a New York jury just concluded was sexual abuse. 

Eventually, the inevitable became obvious: Trump’s audience applauded like a claque track when he called CNN’s Collins “a nasty person” after she challenged him on his facts. Collings was energetically gutsy, but did not convey the gravitas that might have helped her counter Trump with the restrained strength and non-debating journalistic approach that a Ted Koppel or Gwen Ifill might have skillfully employed. 

The unfortunate journalistic result was that Wednesday’s town hall ended up often feeling as if it was a campaign debate between Trump and CNN’s moderator. And that brings up one more unfortunate CNN executive decision. While this was a town hall that would feature questions from New Hampshire Republicans and independents, the event began with CNN’s lone anchor questioning Trump about his perpetual 2020 election denials. Trump replied that “unless you’re very stupid” you’d know that “it was a rigged election.”  

After the event, while pundits and pols were expressing the dismay and disgust that we all were feeling, CNN’s veteran Gary Tuchman was conducting a focus group of six Republicans and undeclared voters. What they had to say put the evening into its unique and mainly unfortunate historic perspective. 

Tuchman began not by presenting himself to the group as a journalist but as a lecturer: “Donald Trump is not a truth-teller. … He has lied about the 2020 election.”  

All eight raised their hands to show they felt “worse” (and not “better”) about Trump. But when Tuchman asked how they felt about Trump’s “lies,” a 40-year-old man who voted twice for Trump replied in a way that should send CNN’s execs scurrying to journalistic rehab. “I feel like part of it is a media narrative, as you guys asked him (at the start) about the 2020 election, rather than the current stuff.”  

One by one, the voters didn’t seem as outraged as the journalists about Trump’s lies. “That’s what he feels,” said a 65-year-old man who voted twice for Trump and will again. “… He says what’s on his mind.”  

So does he think 2020 was a “rigged election?” He answered quietly but quickly: “I’ll abstain.” All eight voters wanted to hear Trump talk more about what he’ll do in 2024. 

Wednesday’s much ballyhooed campaign kickoff town hall will be remembered mainly as an unplanned Trump vs. CNN debate that broke some news. The good news is it can be fixed. 

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Email martin.schram@gmail.com.