David Zaslav, chief executive of parent company CNN, recently defended the network’s decision to host a live town hall with former President Donald J. Trump, calling the event “important for America.”
So it was, but perhaps not for the reasons that Mr. Zaslav intended.
In a rousing and sometimes disconcerting broadcast on Wednesday night, Trump — appearing on CNN for the first time since 2016 — unleashed a barrage of falsehoods, sometimes too quickly for his interlocutor, anchor Kaitlan Collins, to intervene.
Time and again, Trump has falsely claimed that the 2020 election was rigged. He called E. Jean Carroll a “nut” and attacked her in misogynistic terms. He defended the January 6 Capitol protesters.
Mrs. Collins, composed in the face of Trump’s turmoil, interrupted, interceded, corrected and denounced the former president for his lies. He often responded by speaking directly about her. When Trump finally lost his temper and derided Collins as an “unpleasant person,” some in the live audience cheered.
This was a preview of what American journalism can expect from a 2024 campaign under Trump, who, despite his ubiquity in political life, has rarely appeared on mainstream TV outside of Fox News since leaving office.
If the 2016 campaign showed that many Americans could not agree on common facts, the Babellian nature of the New Hampshire city hall on Wednesday suggested that voters now occupy entirely different universes. Trump repeated a web of conspiracies about a stolen election and the “beautiful day” of the Capitol riot, language that would likely confuse half the public and resonate like gospel to the rest.
“The election was not rigged, Mr. President,” Collins said at one point. “You can’t keep saying that all night.” (He kept saying this.)
Mrs. Collins, a rising star at CNN who is being considered for a major 9 pm time slot on the network, was a wise choice as moderator. She covers Mr. Trump for years, knows his idiosyncrasies, and was undeterred when Mr. Trump tried to intimidate her.
Until Mr. Trump looked perplexed when Ms. Collins asked, succinctly, “Do you want Ukraine to win this war?” (He wouldn’t give a straight answer.) She pressed him relentlessly on whether he would sign a federal abortion ban, pointing out, “You didn’t say yes or no.” (Again, Mr. Trump wouldn’t say.)
Still, Mrs. Collins could do as much as the only journalist on stage. It quickly became clear that the crowd of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents was deeply skeptical of her efforts to rein in Trump. The format of the town hall, where loud applause could be heard as the former president mocked Collins, made it even more difficult for her to fulfill her mission. (CNN said it gathered the public in consultation with community groups, religious organizations, local Republicans and the student government of Saint Anselm College.)
When the broadcast ended — after Trump briefly shook Collins’s hand and said “Good job” — the cameras cut to an unusually subdued panel of CNN analysts.
“We don’t have enough time to verify every lie he’s told,” said anchor Jake Tapper. Some CNN critics made the same point before Wednesday’s broadcast, and again afterward: that it was unwise to allow Trump to speak live to millions of people in prime time.
The inclination of Mr. Trump to spread falsehoods is well established. Even Fox News, which provided former president-friendly forums with conservative stars like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, didn’t take Trump live for many months.
He’s also the de facto leader of the GOP, which means his comments are inherently interesting to voters in the throes of a new presidential campaign. CNN said in a statement on Wednesday that his mayorship reflected the network’s “role and responsibility: to get answers and hold those in power accountable.”
Producers and journalists from other major television networks watched CNN on Wednesday with curiosity, skepticism and perhaps a little apprehension.
If Trump remains the front-runner for the Republican nomination, he’ll be on your airwaves soon enough.