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From the Center

In case you hadn’t heard, Donald Trump was on television last week.

He was very loud. He was very combative. He said lots of controversial things. And although you wouldn’t know it from the apocalyptic news coverage that followed his CNN town hall interview, the world has somehow managed to continue to spin on its axis.

Trump was… Trump. He refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 election, said that January 6 was “a beautiful day” and insulted the woman who successfully sued him for sexual abuse. He said he would reinstate the family separation immigration policy, suggested that defaulting in the federal debt could be helpful, and refused to say who he supported in the Russia-Ukraine war. If you loved him at the beginning of the program, you loved him even more at the end. If you hated him when it started, you hated him more by the time it concluded.

But on both sides of the Great Trump Divide, there’s not much satisfaction to be had from simply repeating the praise and curses you’ve been throwing for the past eight years. So most of the post-conversation has focused not on the former president but on the cable network that hosted him. 

The town hall meeting was the latest and most visible attempt by CNN to reposition itself as an even-handed news source after several years of left-leaning news and commentary. In their eagerness to secure Trump for his first scheduled interview with them since 2016, the network's executives may have made too many concessions. Most notably, the agreement for the interview to take place in front of a live audience of Republicans and independent voters provided Trump with a roomful of admirers happy to applaud and cheer his provocations.

While reporters inside the studio noted that the spectators seemed to be evenly split between supporters and skeptics, Trump’s advisors knew that television viewers would only hear applause and assume that Trump’s backing among the attendees was much more widespread. The background noise made it much easier for him to ignore the moderator’s efforts to push back against his inaccuracies. Airing the program live also played to Trump’s benefit, as it was much more difficult for CNN reporter Kaitlin Collins to fact-check him than in a recorded interview.

Most of the criticism that CNN and Collins received fell into two categories: their inability to hold Trump accountable and their decision to provide him with such a high-profile public platform at all. On the first charge, Collins did as well as any professional journalist could have, given the obstacles mentioned in the previous paragraphs. The most effective interviews with Trump in the past have been taped before airing, allowing the network to more effectively provide fact-checking and other context. Collins was well-prepared and pushed back as hard as possible without being overly combative. But if an interview subject is not willing to respond, there’s only so much that even the most effective reporter can do. Trump might not have agreed to participate in a recorded program, and this is a challenge that all media organizations will need to confront over the course of the upcoming presidential campaign.

Similarly, CNN may have been the first network to give Trump this type of platform. But every media company in the country will face the same decision in the months ahead. He is the strong-early frontrunner for one of the two major parties’ nominations next year, and he is supported by roughly half of the nation’s voters in most hypothetical general election matchups against an unpopular incumbent. A credible news organization would argue that not covering a candidate in this position would be an abdication of journalistic responsibility.

Whether the non-Fox networks pay attention to Trump or not, half the country is listening to him. The decision to provide an extended interview format does give him a larger window of opportunity to communicate with voters. But that additional exposure can have both positive and negative repercussions for him. Many of Biden’s supporters simply dismiss the possibility of their candidate losing to Trump, but an hour-plus reminder of Trump’s messaging skills could serve to be an effective motivator for a Biden campaign that needs to be concerned about turning out their base next year.

Donald Trump is news. Different people will come to different conclusions about what he says. But a well-informed electorate does need to hear his message in order to make a well-informed decision about how and whether to vote.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-chief (Center bias).