It’s been a record-breaking interval between editions of The King’s Necktie, six weeks to be exact, owing to my partial sabbatical to finish my as-yet-untitled manuscript for OR Books (to be published early next year) about how we can respond if the Republicans retake power in November 2024.
But I am surfacing briefly because last week CNN gave a master class in the kind of behavior that could help that GOP triumph come about.
By now we all understand that CNN’s decision to air a Trump town hall in New Hampshire, live, in a room full of Trump supporters who cheered and applauded his most vile comments, was a journalistic catastrophe for the ages. For some understatement, let’s go to The Hill, which reported, “Democrats and media pundits….say it made a mistake in giving a forum to Trump, who used the event to promote false claims about the 2020 election, mock the woman a jury recently found he sexually abused in the late 1990s, and voice support for defendants charged with crimes in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.”
Gee, who could possibly have predicted that he would have used that town hall for the purpose?
In addition to the usual tripe about a stolen election, over the course of the evening, Trump—only days after being convicted of sexual assault—called his victim, E. Jean Carroll, “a wack job,” referred to the moderator as “a nasty woman”—shades of Hillary—and labeled a Black police officer a “thug.” (Carroll has since suggested that she might sue him for defamation yet again, which would be the third time.) And the crowd loved it all. I don’t know what “town” this hall was in, but I’d bet green money it’s not one where there are a lot of Ukrainian flags flying.
CNN, of course, tried to defend itself, arguing that it was merely covering the campaign of the presumptive presidential nominee of one of our two major parties, which is by definition newsworthy.
What CNN was doing was shamelessly chasing ratings while trying to pass it off as legitimate journalism. And it kinda worked. As USA Today reports, “The event widened CNN’s audience, at least for a night. Nielsen said the town hall averaged 3.3 million viewers, compared with the 707,000 who tuned in to CNN during the same time slot a night earlier.” (Can you believe I am citing USA Today as a more credible news source than CNN? But in this case, it is.)
McPaper went on:
CNN Chairman and CEO Chris Licht said to staff in a meeting recording obtained by The Associated Press that the town hall was “an important part of the story” and that the people in the audience represent “a large swath of America.”
“The mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist. Just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists,” Licht said.
Oh, CNN knows they exist: and it wants them to tune in.
The network’s rationalization that it is just covering a normal election is shameless. You can cover the candidacy of the likely Republican nominee without airing what was essentially an hour-long campaign commercial, for free. (An hour and nine minutes, to be exact.)
The extent to which CNN abetted Team Trump’s preferred rules of engagement is particularly appalling. Subsequently it was reported, for example, that the audience had been instructed that it could cheer, but not boo. Video evidence of some stonefaced members of that audience suggests that amid the Trump cheerleaders, not everyone was thrilled, but their feelings could not register in the way that of the superfans did, giving the impression of even more Republican support for Trump than really exists.
A sure sign it was a gift to Trump? National Review applauded it (“Anderson Cooper Asks Viewers to Understand CNN Actually Covers News Now”), expressing grudging satisfaction that the CNN was beginning to make up for what thinks was the network’s viciously partisan coverage of Trump when he was president.
Which is a forking joke.
George Conway may have said it best: “I’m no media expert, but it seems to me that interviewing a narcissistic psychopath in front of a packed house of his flying monkeys is not the best format for television journalism.”
WE WON’T LEARN AND YOU CAN’T MAKE US
The failures of the American media in 2016 that contributed to Trump’s victory have been picked over to death. Numerous media experts, from Eric Alterman (who recently retired his column Altercation, and who has written extensively on the press’s mistakes), to Margaret Sullivan (the Washington Post’s media columnist and formerly the public editor of the Times), to Jay Rosen (the much esteemed professor of journalism at NYU), have proposed what ought to be done different in 2024. I added my own one cent about this very issue—it doesn’t even rise to the level of two—in a 2022 King’s Necktie post called “Toward a New Political Journalism.”
And yet it is clear that important sectors of the journalistic community have not learned jackshit. Or if they did, they just don’t care.
The first worrying sign was the breathless, round-the-clock coverage of Trump’s (first) indictment, by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg last month. Admittedly, it was a historic and unprecedented event, but also one so tabloid-juicy that the media could not help itself from once again putting Trump at the center of the national conversation, and gifting him another valuable tranche of so-called “earned media.”
But this town hall was far worse.
When CNN first announced the event, David Rothkopf, author of Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump, remarked that the town hall would be “a sham if it does not lead with the question, ‘You lead an insurrection against the government of the US, why should any American voter support a candidate who sought to undermine the constitution, institutions and values he was sworn to uphold?’”
This just in: it did not.
Should we be surprised? Soon after Chris Licht took the job as chairman and CEO of CNN last fall, he made the rounds on Capitol Hill to visit Republican leaders and assure them that his network would cover them fairly. His groveling delighted the right wing, with the conservative Washington Free Beacon gleefully calling it an “apology tour.” Ahead of the town hall, the former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann said, “I think we can say Chris Licht’s conversion of CNN into a political and journalistic whorehouse is complete.” And that was before we saw how the event was handled and just how bad it was.
In the postmortem, Mark Lukasiewicz, a veteran television producer at NBC and ABC News, and now the dean of the Communication School at Hofstra University, told PBS this:
When you stage a live event, you’re taking a risk, because you’re turning over a platform, as a network, as a news organization, that you have built, a relationship of trust with an audience. And, at least partly, you’re turning over that platform to the live guest who is going to say whatever they’re going to say. It was completely predictable, completely 100 percent predictable, that Donald Trump was going to lie, was going to mislead, was going to obfuscate, and was going to try to railroad the moderator. And that’s what he did.
And CNN gave Donald Trump a platform to do that. I think that is really not a transaction news organizations should be making any more, particularly with this candidate. If somebody comes in front of your cameras, and you’re going to deliver your audience to them for uninterrupted, lengthy fire hoses of lies and deception and, in this case, misogyny and worse, I don’t think that’s something that a news organization should do if they’re trying to serve an audience.
In that same conversation with PBS, the venerable journalist and former Carter speechwriter James Fallows agreed:
(T)he problem (is that it) was a gladiatorial, kind of pro wrestling event, and the fact that it was live. So there was no chance to really catch up with the stream of falsehoods that Donald Trump was putting out, even though Kaitlan Collins, I think, did her best to try to be a fact-checker, but just the circumstances did not allow it.
Fallows pointed out that the best thing about the event was that it provided a template for what the news media should not do going forward.
But how to conduct a town hall is just one aspect of a much larger problem. The entire endeavor of election coverage has to be re-thought in the Age of Trump. At the core of that effort, Jay Rosen has said that the traditional paradigm of reporting an election in terms of a “horserace” is woefully unsuited to a campaign in which one of the two candidates is a pathological liar and neo-fascist who has demonstrated all too well his ability to turn the media’s own norms and protocols against it.
ALL COOPED UP
When the furor erupted after the campaign commercial—er, town hall—was over, CNN’s premier on-air personality, Anderson Cooper himself, took to the air to defend what his network had done. I have a lot of respect for Cooper, and it’s a bit unfair to pick on him when there are far more egregious offenders at his network, like his boss Mr. Licht. But it is Anderson’s very decency, and reasonableness, and fame, contrasted with the absurdity of his remarks, that makes him the one who wants singling out.
He started out by acknowledging the outrage, and affirming the extent of Trump’s lies and the awfulness of the things he said:
Many of you are upset that someone who attempted to destroy our democracy was invited to sit on the stage in front of a crowd of Republican voters to answer questions and predictably continued to spew lie after lie after lie. And I get it. It was disturbing….
Now many of you think CNN shouldn’t have given him any platform to speak. And I understand the anger about that, giving him the audience, the time. I get that.
But he then pivoted to the predictable argument—delivered in rather condescending tones—that Trump’s position as the clear GOP frontrunner justified the event.
The man you were so disturbed to hear from last night, that man is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. And according to polling, no other Republican is even close. That man you were so upset to hear from last night, he may be president of the United States in less than two years, and that audience that upset you, that’s a sampling of about half the country. They are your family members, your neighbors, and they are voting. And many said they’re voting for him.
He went on, still rather patronizing to this listener’s ears:
Now maybe you haven’t been paying attention to him since he left office. Maybe you’ve been enjoying not hearing from him thinking it can’t happen again, some investigation is going to stop him. Well, it hasn’t so far. So if last night showed anything, it showed it can happen again. It is happening again. He hasn’t changed, and he is running hard.
Yeah—it is happening again. And this sort of coverage is abetting it.
Then came the real howler:
You have every right to be outraged today and angry, and never watch this network again. But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite. If lies are allowed to go unchecked, as imperfect as our ability to check them is on a stage in real time, those lies continue and those lies spread.
It’s true that it’s dangerous to consume only journalism that reinforces what one already believes. Confirmation bias has become the defining characteristic of American media, and the Internet has only worsened that balkanization. (There are dangers in dipping into the toxic sludge of disinformation too, even if only to learn what the other side believes, but that’s a topic for another day.)
But there is a HUGE difference between stepping outside the bubble to expose oneself to a broad range of views and a news organization willingly turning itself into a platform for the relentless dissemination of what it knows are flat-out lies—lies that by virtue of the format go unchallenged, and have been proven to incited political violence.
And the lies were NOT checked, not even imperfectly, as Cooper claimed, and not because Kaitlan Collins didn’t try, but because it was an impossible task, as Fallows and many others have pointed out and even Cooper himself admitted.
“After last night,” Cooper said, “none of us can say: ‘I didn’t know what was out there. I didn’t know what was coming.’”
Are you kidding me? Did we not live through four years of Trump as President? EVERYBODY knows what Trump is about. For CNN to claim it is doing some sort of public service by educating us on that topic is ridiculous.
Cooper concluded with the sanctimonious suggestion that those who were outraged by what Trump said on the air, and by the town hall itself, have the ability to do something about it by getting out and voting—a claim that disingenuously elided his own network’s complicity in aiding a candidate who openly boasts of his desire to destroy free and fair elections in this country.
This was precisely the kind of blinkered, pre-2016 political journalism that gave us Trump the first time. Back then, the press might have had the excuse of inexperience, having never faced a demagogue on the order of Donald Trump before. This time it has no such excuse, which was what made CNN’s decision so unforgivable, and its mulish attempts at rationalization after the fact even worse.
RULES FOR RADICALS
In the wake of last week’s televised shit show, The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last offered some rules for how the press ought to cover the Trump campaign going forward. Among them:
Don’t broadcast Trump live, where he can machine gun over the moderators and the fact-checkers.
Don’t edit out his craziest comments—let the people hear what he’s all about.
Don’t accept disinformation from his minions. If an anonymous source (like a Trump staffer) gives information to a reporter, and that is information is later shown to be a lie, the reporter has both the right and the duty to expose that source.
Don’t let Trump get away with denying demonstrable reality, especially when it comes to his own record and actions. “(I)f he says, ‘I never said X’ then cut to a clip of him saying X.”
And my favorite: Don’t give air time and column inches to Trump’s toadies:
The (Washington) Post ought to….stop publishing Trump apologias like the nonsense from Hugh Hewitt (‘The GOP is in much better shape than you think”) and Marc Thiessen (“An indictment would help Trump. Maybe that’s what Democrats want.”) on their op-ed page in the name of presenting both sides.
Say hallejuah: I have long been waiting for some pushback on Hewitt and Thiessen, who are both odious hacks who don’t deserve to be printed in a legitimate newspaper. If this is the best American conservatism can offer as credible voices, that says a lot. (The Times gives us Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens, whom I almost always disagree with, particularly the former, but they are worlds better than Hugh and Marc.)
Maybe the Post can hire Tucker Carlson. I hear he’s looking for a new gig.
Any way you slice it, the American media no longer has any excuse for covering Trump like a normal candidate, or pretending that it doesn’t know what he’s going to do when the red light comes on, or what the potential damage to the country will be if we let him run amok. CNN’s wildly irresponsible decision to air that town hall, in the manner that it did, is a terrifying sign for 2024. The best we can hope for is that it was so bad that, moving forward, it will deter other news organizations from doing the same.
But CNN’s ratings for that debacle imply otherwise.