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I was wrong – the Trump town hall was a disaster
He doesn't play by the rules, so journalists must use different rules
Last week, I wrote that CNN was doing the right thing by offering former president Donald Trump a town hall meeting in primetime, that he’s a legitimate candidate and that a legitimate news organization can’t ignore him like Fox “News” ignores Democrats.
I was wrong. Last night’s town hall was a disaster on many fronts. A disaster for CNN. A disaster for our country. Maybe even a disaster for Trump himself.
Many commenters last week predicted this would happen and I wouldn’t blame them today for saying “Dave, I told you so”.
This was re-run Trump. From his first response lying about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, through a host of issues – his criminal indictment, being found liable for sexual assault – everyone and everything is “rigged” if it doesn’t go his way. If re-elected, he said he would likely pardon the January 6th rioters. He said he would end the war in Ukraine in one day, without saying how he might do that.
It was NOT a disaster for moderator Kaitlan Collins. She was prepared. She tried to check his misstatements. She tried to bring him back to actually answer the questions. It didn’t matter. He ran over her. Non-stop ranting. The same old arguments. Absolutely nothing new here.
The biggest mistake by CNN was to put this whole mess in front of a live audience of friendly New Hampshire Republicans. Many of them applauded his answers. When he made fun of E. Jean Carroll, they laughed right along with him. They were the perfect back-up chorus to the diva on stage. Not one person in the audience asked him a challenging question. They were all softballs. As it turns out, Kaitlan Collins was the only person in the room trying to keep the train on the tracks, but she was outnumbered. It wasn’t a fair fight.
The other mistake was putting Trump on live with no opportunity to edit his comments. Of course, candidates often insist on being live for that very reason, so evil journalists can’t fact-check them before broadcasting their lies.
A few of the notes I jotted down on my notebook as I watched:
· A complete waste of time
· Nothing has changed
· Motor mouth
· Collins tried
· I wonder how my Cardinals are doing against the Cubs? (another disaster)
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Looking forward, I assume CNN will be offering other candidates the same live opportunity as 2024 draws near. But we must learn some lessons from last night’s train wreck.
The goal of a legitimate news organization like CNN making every effort to fairly cover all major candidates is still a good one, but with Trump, journalists can’t treat him the same as other candidates. He lies as frequently and as easily as the rest of us breathe.
Lesson #1: Don’t cover him live – ever. Journalists can still cover him, but they must retain the ability to edit what he says before publishing or broadcasting it. He doesn’t play by the rules of basic human civility and conversation. He’s rude. He interrupts. He doesn’t answer the questions he’s asked.
Lesson #2: When doing a town hall, make sure the audience is balanced. Yes, only Republicans will be judging Trump in New Hampshire’s GOP primary next year, but the impact of a friendly, partisan audience on a TV program gives the appearance that all “regular people” support him. It wasn’t a town hall so much as it was a campaign rally.
Lesson #3: Let this be a warning sign to all journalists covering the 2024 campaign. The general feeling after 2016 was that the media make mistakes covering Trump and those mistakes can’t be repeated. Moving forward, all journalists must realize that nothing has changed with Trump. He’s not like other candidates, so the media can’t treat him like other candidates. If he thinks that’s “so unfair”, that’s too bad.
Consider this an apology for last week’s column. I thought CNN was doing the right thing by trying to take the high road. I was wrong. Donald Trump drags everyone and everything around him down into the gutter.
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