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The Battle For The Soul Of CNN
Future News 156: Trump will kill-off the town hall format
The dramatic reorganisation of US party politics is still causing a mass daze and confusion across America’s media as outlets attempt to get a grip of the new status quo almost seven years after Donald Trump’s ‘surprise’ White House victory.
The coveting of the US’ blue-collar vote has flipped the script on the traditional Republican versus Democrat divide, with anti-war, anti-mass immigration populism now pitted against the pro-climate technology and big spending policies of President Biden.
Despite Fox News splitting from its star anchor Tucker Carlson and settling with Dominion Voting Systems in an embarrassing defamation lawsuit, somehow CNN, its arch liberal rival, has found itself in a very public soul searching exercise thanks to Trump and his supporters.
The seeds were set last February when Chris Licht was appointed CNN CEO and again this February when Warner Bros Discovery boss David Zaslav told investors and investment analysts that 2023 would be a “year of building”, whilst praising CNN for embracing a “balance strategy” as more GOP voices appeared on the network.
The message flew under the radar (apart from in Future News of course) until a town hall with Trump was announced in May, notably before a New York jury found that the former President had sexually abused journalist E. Jean Carrol in the late 1990s – in a ruling Trump plans to appeal.
But the news did come after Don Lemon had been ousted from the network. Lemon’s former co-star, Kaitlan Collins, 31, was unveiled as the chief interrogator.
“CNN has a longstanding tradition of hosting leading presidential candidates for Town Halls and political events as a critical component of the network’s robust campaign coverage,” a press release from the network stated.
“This event with former President Trump will be the first of many for CNN in the coming months as CNN correspondents travel across the country to hear directly from voters in the runup to the 2024 presidential election.”
The New Hampshire crowd lapped up Trump and, in his now classic fashion, the billionaire rode roughshod over the outdated and old-fashioned format.
Collins put up a valiant effort in holding the former President to account, but the usual deflections, winks to the camera and falsehoods were deployed. At one point Trump even called Collins “nasty”.
We did learn at least that another Trump presidency would see some Capitol Hill rioters pardoned and the war in Ukraine would be brought to an almost immediate end, with Trump declaring that he would settle the conflict within 24-hours.
Either way, political carnival, rather than journalistic integrity, had won the day. The ratings, however, were up.
More than 3.3m people tuned in to the town hall, according to Nielsen. Bearing in mind that CNN had averaged 535,000 viewers at primetime throughout the first quarter of 2023 (down from an average of 687,000 for 2022), the event could be seen as a short-term corporate success.
But the long-term vision seems unclear. More town halls and more GOP analysts? There are only so many Bidens and Trumps to go around.
And even though the ratings were up, Anderson Cooper, probably the US’ most recognisable journalist, was deployed to address CNN's viewers.
Read more: The wild story behind CNN’s creation
He acknowledged the criticisms about the Trump town hall, admitting that it was “awful to hear [Trump] spread ridiculous lies about the election”.
Cooper even alluded to the inherent downfalls of the format and show, which actually ran overtime. “As good a job as Kaitlan Collins did in trying to fact-check him, it is impossible to fact-check fully because he lies so shamelessly,” he said.
But did CNN really ‘try’? No data points were projected onto the back of the set to hold Trump to account, no CNN ‘experts’ were brought into the conversation on key policy areas and Trump, ultimately, wasn’t held to account for his own electoral pledges which he failed to deliver in front of his own voters.
It was like choosing to race Usain Bolt at 100 metres when you had the option to do it at 1,500 metres with a bunch of hurdles and a water jump in the way.
Instead of admitting these downfalls, Cooper instead declared that CNN viewers shouldn’t be stuck in their silos.
“The man you were so disturbed to see and hear from last night, that man is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. If last night showed anything it showed that it can happen again. It is happening again,” he said.
“He hasn’t changed and he is running hard. 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?”
Oliver Darcy, who succeeded the ousted Brian Stelter as lead author of the Reliable Sources newsletter, didn’t seem to agree. “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening,” he wrote.
For this protest, Darcy was reportedly summoned to Licht’s office and criticised for his ‘emotional’ reporting.
So what next? If CNN really does want to close the gap on Fox News, it should no look no further than the concerns of the American public.
Gallup has them as follows: Government/poor leadership (20%), high cost of living/inflation (12%), the economy in general (12%) and immigration (11%).
An unhealthy obsession with the electrical horse-race and personalities have dominated and trivialised US politics for years on American TV.
It’s not a binary choice, but perhaps CNN could concentrate more on policies, especially those that may not necessarily align with a liberal mindset, to build its viewership and re-work outdated and old TV formats in the process.
A starter for ten: why did so many Hispanic voters back Trump at the last election?
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