Culture Wars/Current Controversies

CNN went full ‘Jerry Springer’

Thursday, May 11, 2023
The Daily
Tom Nichols headshot

Tom Nichols

Staff writer

I have advocated for giving Donald Trump’s sociopathic behavior full exposure. But CNN’s decision to run a town hall with the former president enabled that behavior and managed to harm journalism, the network’s reputation, and the American political process all at once.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Trump Dream

Donald Trump at the CNN town hall

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I have long argued that Americans need to see more, rather than less, of Donald Trump.  Because I believe that Trump is an existential menace to American democracy, I have encouraged covering Trump as closely as possible. I know this seems counterintuitive: Trump built a following over the years by being on television, and his base can’t get enough of him, so why should the media encourage more adoration? But for ordinary Americans who did not join the cultish following that congealed around Trump in 2016—many of whom are the independent voters who will decide the next election—“Trump exhaustion” is a real thing, and the more of it, the better.

Watching Trump for any extended period of time is enervating and deeply uncomfortable. The man is a quivering bag of weird verbal and physical tics. And when he gets rolling, listening to a Trump speech is like standing nearby while someone throws a match into a box of cheap bottle rockets: When the fusillade of annoying noise, misfires, duds, and smoke is over, all that’s left is a general stink in the air.

This discomfort is exactly my point: If you want to stop Donald Trump from returning to power, putting him on TV is the way to go. But doing so requires either that you hand him a microphone and let him immolate himself, or that you sit him down with a reporter who will not let up on calling out his lies and fantasies until he melts down.

Last night, however, CNN chose one of the worst possible options. Instead of a candidate interview, CNN Chairman Chris Licht apparently thought it would be a great idea to cast Trump in a remake of The Jerry Springer Show, complete with vulgar jokes, hooting fans, and a mild-mannered host—in this case, the CNN correspondent Kaitlan Collins—stuck with the thankless of job of trying to intervene in the shouting and angry finger-pointing. Instead of an important one-on-one interview with a dangerous and malevolent demagogue, CNN presented another episode of Trump’s ongoing reality show.

The result was a disaster that was not only foreseeable but also as predictable as the laws of physics, a cringe-inducing display that damaged CNN’s reputation, put one of its rising stars in a no-win situation, cheapened journalism, and undermined our political process—all in the span of little more than an hour.

To be clear, I am not taking issue with CNN offering Trump time on the network. Trump is far and away the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Neither CNN nor any other network can refuse to cover him; as I’ve said, it would be a disservice to let him spread his toxic slurry out of the public eye. But “covering” Trump does not mean packing an audience with supporters and then setting the resolutely misogynist Trump against a young female reporter in a situation that practically could have been designed by the Trump campaign itself.

Indeed, Licht and his producers seemed determined to place Trump right in his comfort zone. Although Collins tried repeatedly to contradict Trump, Licht had to know—perhaps was even expecting—that Trump would simply steamroll her, as he did. (She also missed several opportunities—particularly on abortion—to stop Trump as he rocketed beyond the Van Allen belts, but I accept that correcting him is basically impossible.) Only once did she finally manage to get under his skin with repeated questioning, and in response, he pulled out his standard insult of calling her “nasty.”

The audience, for their part, was a Trump dream, even standing and applauding his entrance and exit. But where did they come from? I emailed CNN’s head of strategic communications, Matt Dornic, and he referred me to his tweet this morning explaining that the attendees were “curated by CNN through community groups, student politics and government, faith groups, agriculture and education orgs, as well as [Republican] groups. The school and campaign also invited guests.” I asked Dornic whether he had reached out directly to the New Hampshire GOP, and he replied that it was “just one of many groups we tapped for audience.”

(The chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, in an email to Atlantic senior editor Kelli Korducki, said that CNN had provided some seats for New Hampshire party attendees and had the email addresses of the party’s executive-board members, adding that he saw CNN’s email invite “shared around” and that it was all “very professional,” whatever that means.)

Whoever they were, Trump was jazzed by their support. Every slimy comment got a laugh or applause, including many about E. Jean Carroll, the woman who successfully sued Trump for sexual abuse and defamation this week. (Trump was so vile, Carroll says, that she is reportedly thinking of suing him again.) Collins had to ask about Carroll, of course, but after that, the plan—if one existed—seemed to be for her to stand there and take it while Trump talked over her, made dirty jokes, and basked in audience laughter. Trump’s sleaziness, like everything else in this train wreck, was completely foreordained—and, again, Licht and his producers had to know it.

So what, exactly, was CNN’s objective here? According to a transcript obtained by Politico, Licht praised Collins in an editorial call with CNN’s troops this morning: “If someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, that damn well should be on CNN.” Collins indeed asked the questions, but there was no conversation. Trump commanded the stage, played to the crowd, and swatted Collins aside as if she were an annoying intern trying to fix his lapels.

Licht then added:

While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story, because the people in that audience represent a large swath of America. And the mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist.

How anyone—especially the head of a news network—can believe that this group of people has been ignored is astonishing. Perhaps he missed the many years of journalists conducting ritual pilgrimages to America’s diners and asking every angry old guy in a red hat to please, please tell us what he wants.

Perhaps what Licht really meant is that CNN should see MAGA world as an underserved community that is up for grabs while Fox News reels from its scandals. It seems an odd strategy, however, to push Collins onstage as the blood sacrifice for an hour, and then follow that up with Jake Tapper and other CNN hosts wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of talking about what a miserable fiasco their own network just splattered across the nation’s screens.

As many observers have noted, CNN has learned nothing since 2016. Or maybe CNN has learned everything since 2016, and intends to do it all over again.


Today’s News

  1. Title 42, a COVID-era public-health restriction that allows authorities to swiftly expel migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border—in many cases preventing them from applying for asylum, but with almost no legal repercussions for crossing—expires tonight.
  2. Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the release of former Prime Minister Imran Khan as protests swept the country.
  3. The White House called for a “thorough investigation” into the death of Jordan Neely, who died after being choked by a fellow New York City subway rider.

Evening Read

silhouettes of refugees on a bus Afghan refugees wait on a bus after arriving at Dulles International Airport in August 2021. (Olivier Douliery / AFP / Getty)

‘We Are Not Ordinary People’

There are few ways of escape from the Taliban’s Afghanistan. One of them crosses the mountainous eastern border with Pakistan in a town called Torkham. Last September, Safia Noori; her husband, Fakhruddin Elham; and their four-month-old daughter, Victoria, traveled to Torkham and joined a throng of Afghans waiting to be allowed across by Taliban guards. The day was hot; the baby was crying; the crowd pressed in. Noori and Elham, in their early 20s, were carrying just two small bags, one with the baby’s clothes, the other with their own. They had sold everything else, including the furniture and handmade curtains and bedspread that made up Noori’s wedding dowry, to buy passports. They hadn’t seen their parents since the fall of Afghanistan a year before.

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I won’t be back with you here at the Daily until next week, but I want to remind you to keep your eye on this week’s episode of HBO’s Succession, and particularly on the set at ATN, the fictional, Fox-like network owned by the Roy family. You’ll see a pundit on the network’s screens, a rather portly fellow in a blue suit and the de rigueur flag pin. He bears a remarkable resemblance to a writer of your acquaintance.

Fine, it’s me (playing a role, not as myself), and it’s a banger of an episode. Titled “America Decides,” it takes place on Election Night, and … well, that’s all I can tell you. But I’m writing about what it was like to be on the set of this amazing show, and about my too-brief tenure as a right-wing ATN commentator. Look for it in The Atlantic after the show airs on Sunday night.

— Tom

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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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