The Worst Thing to Come Out of Trump’s Town Hall Didn’t Come From Trump
When CNN treated its event as a means of making news, it had already lost the battle.
You already know what happened in CNN’s town hall with Donald Trump last night. You know it because you know Donald Trump. Performative cruelty, preening selfishness, bluster, hatred, insults, lies—it was a grotesque display made even worse by the fact that the grotesquerie was entirely predictable.
Trump is, in the strictest sense, old news. He is a known quantity. He is no longer capable of revealing anything new, about himself or his movement. Because of that, only one piece of relevant news emerged from the town hall. It came not from the event itself, but from the speech that CNN’s CEO, Chris Licht, delivered in a network-wide editorial call this morning. Licht congratulated the town hall’s moderator, Kaitlan Collins, on her effort to coax truth out of Trump’s lies. And he did so in particular terms: “Kaitlan pressed him again and again and made news,” Licht said, according to the media reporter (and former CNN anchor) Brian Stelter. “Made a lot of news.” And “that is our job.”
In one way, the claim is itself a form of old news, a mandate so tired and obvious as to be meaningless. CNN is in the news business. Of course its job would involve the making of news. But make a lot of news as the end point—as the sum of CNN’s work—is also profoundly outmoded. Trump has changed journalism’s equations. The new media environment has changed them as well. It is not, in fact, CNN’s job to make news. It is CNN’s job to report the news, to explain the news, to make sense of the news. Providing a stage for a known liar to tell his lies is not journalism. It is a costly act of concession.
In the 1960s, when television was the revolutionary technology reshaping American life, the historian Daniel Boorstin published The Image, his seminal criticism of the media in the age of the screen. In it, Boorstin coined the term pseudo-event to describe the spectacle that exists merely to be documented: the press conference, the news release, the campaign rally. The coinage informs today’s idea of the media event: the thing that occurs primarily so that journalists can tell their audiences about the occurrence. In the media event—a postmodern spectacle, manufactured and compelling—news will be made. Air will be filled. But nothing, meaningfully, will happen.
Boorstin predicted CNN and the 24-hour news cycle it helped create. He predicted the compounding demands that would be made when journalists’ mandates shifted away from “reporting real events” to “filling endless space.” And he foresaw the morally vacuous approach to news that turns Trump, the crisis incarnate, into Trump, the evasive spectacle. Boorstin anticipated the strain of cynicism CNN was employing last night as it gave its air over to a demagogue and then filled even more of its air with pundits professing indignation at all the demagoguery. This is vertical integration of the worst kind. The network “makes news” and then talks about the news that has been made, and then agrees that the news that has been made is dangerous to the republic.
Trump is, in his own way, a media event. Given a platform, he will always do something spectacular. (A good salesperson will always find new pitches for the outdated stuff he’s trying to sell.) And CNN is not alone in navigating the tension that fact presents: Trump is an emergency. He is also good TV.
Trump, because of that, is reliable in his ability to attract audiences. He is a draw for his fans. He is a draw for his detractors. There is a reason autocrats and demagogues tend to double as successful media personalities. But convening an audience, like making news, cannot be an end in itself. Nor can Trump’s popularity be a stand-alone reason for CNN and other networks to aim their cameras in his direction. Trump merits news coverage. He is a probable GOP nominee for the presidency. He has the potential, in the months and years ahead, to bring even more of the destruction he has already brought—to American democracy and individual people’s lives. But this is also why he cannot be considered a news-maker in the traditional sense. Live television is the wrong setting for him. His claims need to be fact-checked. His statements—the ones that might have bearing on politics and policy, and thus deserve an airing—need to be contextualized. That is the job CNN, and other journalists, need to do when it comes to him.
When news networks amplify Trump, their reasoning is often similar: They will hold him to account, they claim, in ways others have failed to do. Collins arrived at the town-hall stage armed with tough questions and a clear mission to keep Trump in check. It’s not her fault that she failed; everyone will. Live television, for Trump, is both his weapon and his turf. He will use it shamelessly. Anyone who tries to treat a live event with him as common ground, or as a site of political discourse—or as a place to make news—has already lost the battle.
That is perhaps why last night’s town hall so acutely resembled one of Trump’s rallies: The star performed; the audience cheered. This time, though, members of the media were not penned off to the side of the event, awaiting the inevitable mockery. Now Trump had “the media” sitting next to him. He insulted Collins to her face. He did it on her network’s air. And the network’s head tried to insist that the whole thing had been an important act of journalism. Soon after CNN gave him its stage, the political action committee Make America Great Again Inc. issued a press release. The news it shared was simple: “President Trump Dominates CNN Town Hall.”