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The Revolution Will Be Televised
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The Revolution Will Be Televised

CNN and Trump, reunited.

Donald Trump speaks during a CNN debate in 2016. (Rhone Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

When is it appropriate to platform a coup plotter?

As a wee pundit I never anticipated having to consider that question. But such are the novel ethical dilemmas that our glorious populist age has thrust upon us.

CNN announced yesterday that it plans to host Donald Trump at a televised prime-time town hall in New Hampshire on May 10. Much of the commentariat found this news “triggering,” to borrow a term, notwithstanding the fact that Trump was reinstated by major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter months ago. 

That’s because the relationship between Trump and CNN has been, and remains, a special sore spot among his critics. As an NBC executive years ago, Jeff Zucker made a TV star of Trump by greenlighting The Apprentice. Years later, as head of CNN, he made a political star of him by lavishing airtime on his longshot presidential campaign, sometimes airing his rallies from start to finish. It’s no exaggeration to say that Zucker “helped create” Trump as a cultural phenomenon.

Trump haters also bear CNN a unique grudge because of its niche in the media industry. Unlike Fox News and MSNBC, both of which have partisan audiences, CNN is supposed to be the place where persuadables go to get their news. When Fox promotes Trump, it’s Fox being Fox; when MSNBC promotes him, it is providing hate-watch material for its audience. When CNN promotes him, it feels like the network is moving votes his way.

That’s why, whenever Trump skeptics on the right recall the absurd depths to which cable news sank to raise his political stature, they think first of CNN. When they ruminate on the stupendous value of the free airtime that Trump was gifted across all platforms, they think first of CNN. When they reflect on efforts at the time to provide “balanced” coverage by adding Trump sycophants to panel discussions, they think first of CNN.

It was CNN, after all, that added Trump’s former campaign manager to its roster of commentators in 2016, and it was CNN that introduced America to another young pundit who’d go on to serve as his press secretary after he became president. The network’s own anchors struggled to suppress their contempt for the naked propaganda pushed by the sort of Trump slobberers whom CNN executives deemed fit for air.

No network did more to “normalize” him.

Things turned adversarial after the election. As CNN’s coverage grew more critical and its hosts began editorializing against him, Trump took to demagoging the network. He tweeted out old footage of himself attacking a pro wrestler at a WWE event with the word “CNN” emblazoned on the wrestler’s face. He called the outlet an “enemy of the people.” He tried to bar its White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, from daily briefings because of his antagonistic questions. Whether his antipathy for Zucker’s shop was real or, to borrow again from pro wrestling, a type of “kayfabe” designed to thrill right-wing audiences is known only to Trump. But the relationship between them seemed increasingly irreparable.

January 6 was cracked up to be the last straw, the moment at which even Jeff-Zucker-led CNN would finally learn its lesson about the risk of promoting an unhinged authoritarian. He made for compelling television, but snuff films are also compelling in a way. Certain things are too dangerous and indecent to air even if they’re sure to deliver ratings. 

Yesterday’s news of a live CNN town hall with Trump made a joke of that. Bad enough that Republicans haven’t wised up to the threat of empowering a coup plotter, but for America’s supposedly nonpartisan “down the middle” cable news network to do it—under new, post-Zucker management, no less—seemed unthinkable. They’re normalizing him. Again. Post-insurrection this time.

Many Trump haters are irate. I find myself torn, confounded by an old dilemma. How should liberal institutions treat an overtly illiberal actor? Should they play by their usual liberal rules, offering him a fair hearing in the so-called marketplace of ideas?

Or should they give him a taste of his own illiberal medicine by trying to exclude him from that marketplace, colluding with other institutions if need be to do so?

There’s more than meets the eye to the motives here, on both sides.

For CNN, this is about more than one night of solid ratings. It’s about rebranding, however slightly, at an opportune moment.

Fox suddenly looks vulnerable in prime time. And CNN’s new head honchos have made plain that they want their network to be less hostile to right-wing viewpoints. In late 2021, one of the major shareholders in the network’s new parent company said he’d “like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.” Last year strident Fox critic Brian Stelter was let go; Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon, both outspoken liberals, were canned over scandals.

CNN won’t replace Fox as a safe space for viewers seeking right-wing propaganda, but a town hall with Trump may signal to center-right Republicans that the outlet isn’t as chilly to their perspective as it had been recently.

It’s also a necessary first step if the network hopes to do a series of town halls this year with other Republican candidates, which it does. If, instead of Trump, they had scheduled the first event with a more traditional Republican like Nikki Haley, that might have drawn a backlash from right-wing voters that would have scared off heavier hitters like Trump and DeSantis. Of course Haley agreed to an interview with CNN. That’s what RINOs do.

Starting the series with Trump is tantamount to earning a populist seal of approval. DeSantis and the rest can now agree to their own events without fear of being attacked for consorting with “enemy” media. And more town halls obviously mean more opportunities for CNN to show curious Republican viewers that the network has changed its ardently liberal ways.

Trump also has motives that extend beyond the chance to make his pitch to an audience with more swing voters than he’s used to encountering. An obvious one is to punish Fox News and the Murdoch family, who took a shine to DeSantis and began to promote him aggressively across their media empire earlier this year. Fox has since tried to make amends to Trump as his polling has risen and DeSantis’ has declined, treating him to a series of softball interviews with Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin. But suspicions die hard. Just yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. was heard wondering why he hasn’t been invited on Fox in nine months. The CNN town hall is a modicum of payback.

It’s also an opportunity to bash DeSantis before a large audience and to draw an interesting contrast in their respective media strategies. “Going outside the traditional Republican ‘comfort zone’ was a key to President Trump’s success in 2016. Some other candidates are too afraid to take this step in their quest to defeat Joe Biden, and are afraid to do anything other than Fox News,” a Trump adviser told Semafor when asked about the CNN town hall. There’s no mystery as to who those certain unnamed other candidates are, writes Benjy Sarlin:

Trump, who has done more to rally conservatives against the press than any modern politician, has also been more eager to cultivate a relationship with them than his chief opponent, Ron DeSantis, who has largely resisted interviews and engagement with non-conservative outlets.

DeSantis very deliberately insulated himself from the national press during his rise. Following Trump’s lead, he elevated a hostile forward-facing spokeswoman with a MAGA-friendly Twitter persona, cultivated Potemkin news outlets to cheer him on, and tried to limit press protections with new legislation.

While he has some more traditional communications staff, they’ve so far shown less interest in countering [negative] stories with surrogates, spokesmen, and messaging of his own before his campaign officially launches.

DeSantis’ strategy toward the mainstream media is part and parcel of his political strategy writ large, which is to take the same position as the populist base on any given issue but to be 20 percent “extra” about it. The only way to out-Trump Trump in a primary, he believes, is to show Republican voters that he’s willing to walk the walk where others, including Trump himself, only talk the talk. Any Republican can complain about vaccine mandates, but how many are willing to call for an investigation of vaccine manufacturers? Any Republican can complain about woke corporations, but how many are willing to violate the First Amendment to punish corporations that speak out on politics?

He’s made the same bet with the press, not only shunning interview requests from major networks but refusing to take questions during most of his recent book tour. Any Republican can call the mainstream media “the enemy of the people,” but how many are willing to practice a soft boycott of that media and stick mostly to right-wing propaganda outlets—the people’s media!—instead?

DeSantis’ media strategy makes sense if the intellectual substance of right-wing populism consists of anything more concrete than “whatever benefits Trump.” If CNN is horribly biased against Republicans, if it’s working on behalf of the Democratic Party in ways overt and covert, then he should get credit from GOP primary voters for boycotting it. It’s Disney 2.0: If you want liberal institutions to show more respect for your politics, you need to show them that there are consequences when they don’t. DeSantis plays hardball.

But if populism is simply “whatever benefits Trump” and Trump has decided that a town hall on CNN will benefit him, suddenly DeSantis looks like a chump to the right-wing base for boycotting the mainstream press. He’s afraid of scrutiny! He’s supposed to be electable yet he keeps passing on opportunities to speak to voters outside his bubble. Maybe he’s too personally awkward and too spoiled by pattycake interviews with friendly outlets to effectively answer hard questions anymore.

Trump obviously believes that populism is “whatever benefits Trump” and nothing more. That’s why he feels comfortable attacking DeSantis in ways that should, in theory, grossly offend populist Republican orthodoxy. Florida is garbage and has a terrible record on COVID; waging war on Disney is stupid and counterproductive; doing a special prime-time event on Jeff Zucker’s old network isn’t just fine, it’s a good idea. To him, it’s all kayfabe. DeSantis’ gamble is that, to voters, it means something more.

He’ll now have to decide whether to break his media boycott and do a CNN town hall of his own, leaving him once again in the position of following Trump’s lead, or maintain the boycott and pass on a plum opportunity to introduce himself to a group of persuadable voters. If he does intend to pass, the logical thing for him to do is to start attacking Trump for deigning to give an audience to an “enemy” media outlet. That would hurt Trump—if populist voters are serious about hating and punishing the mainstream media.

What conclusion should we draw if DeSantis chooses not to make that attack?

The bottom line to all this is that the town hall makes sense for Trump’s and CNN’s respective bottom lines. But that brings us back to the moral question: Is it appropriate for CNN to platform a coup-plotter?

My squishy answer is “Yes, unfortunately, under the circumstances.” Although I’m sympathetic to the counterarguments.

I’m a classical liberal and therefore typically prefer the classically liberal approach to illiberal viewpoints, letting bad speech have its say and challenging it with good speech. Invite Trump on, let him make his case about how Hugo Chávez rigged the 2020 election from the grave, and debunk as necessary. The great and good American people will see through him and he’ll end up doing himself more harm than good. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

But I no longer trust the great and good American people to distinguish bad speech from good as much as I used to. I’m mindful of the fact that deplatforming works. And I confess that there are many viewpoints I’d consider so far beyond the pale that I wouldn’t want to see them given a platform by a credible news outlet, even if they were treated skeptically. A town hall featuring a notorious Holocaust denier might produce more good speech questioning his beliefs than bad speech, but would airing that town hall do more to promote Holocaust revisionism than to discourage it?

To defend CNN’s event with Trump is to say, however implicitly, that attempting a coup isn’t so far beyond the pale in the United States that it should disqualify you from being treated like a normal political candidate. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Insisting that the event is legitimate because it’s “newsworthy” is reminiscent of Fox News’ defense for putting figures like Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani on the air after the 2020 election to spout conspiracy theories. They were the president’s lawyers; their claims were objectively newsworthy; the public had a right to hear them out simply for the sake of staying informed on important current events.

If handing Trump a CNN microphone to spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election is acceptable on “news” grounds, why was handing Powell and Giuliani Fox microphones to do the same thing a problem?

Trump is free to speak on any network that’ll have him, just as he’s free to rent any arena and address any crowd that wants to attend. Classical liberalism requires that we protect those freedoms. But it certainly doesn’t require CNN or anyone else to give him a platform. CNN has its own freedoms of speech and association that it can exercise as it sees fit, which in this case it sees fit to exercise for the benefit of a seditious authoritarian.

That’s the case against holding the town hall.

I respect it, but I resist it because it misplaces blame for our national predicament. The reason CNN wants Trump on the air isn’t because it’s intrigued by his theories of how ballot boxes nationwide were stuffed en masse and wants to expose more Americans to them. The reason CNN wants Trump on the air is because a majority of the Republican Party has gone full crackpot and handed him a 30-point lead in the coming primary.

If you dislike the idea that attempting a coup is no bar to being considered a mainstream politician in modern America, I regret to inform you that your problem is not with CNN. It’s with the deplorable American right. They’ve decided that coup attempts are not just a forgivable sin in a future leader, they’re no sin at all. CNN can’t normalize him this time; the GOP already has.

We should always bear that in mind, as the effort among Republican partisans to shift culpability for continued Trumpmania from their own voters to the media is tireless.

If Trump were 25 points behind DeSantis in the polls, I would agree that handing him a free hour on an otherwise unfriendly cable news network to try to turn things around would be indefensible. I’m not so much of a classical liberal that I wouldn’t condone platforms starving him of media oxygen to suffocate his candidacy if and when we reach a point that he’s fading in the polls.

But we aren’t at that point. The prospect of a third Trump nomination is real and needs to be confronted, so CNN is confronting it. If next week’s event ends up being a softball session, that too will be indefensible. But the town hall format has promise: If, for instance, Trump ends up being challenged on the fact that his own campaign knew full well in 2020 that there wasn’t any systematic voter fraud, that challenge will be more powerful coming from the mouths of average Americans in attendance than from a CNN reporter. 

The outcry over the event has put pressure on the network and moderator Kaitlan Collins to hold his feet to the fire. It could be a tough night for him.

There are other benefits too. Insofar as CNN might have had misgivings about holding town halls for other Republican candidates, or those candidates might have had misgivings about attending, this solves that problem. Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and, yes, maybe Ron DeSantis will eventually end up receiving more media exposure themselves because of what Trump and CNN are doing. And as lesser-known candidates, they’ll benefit from that exposure more than the most famous, polarizing person in America will.

Conversely, had Trump declined the town hall and CNN chosen to hold events with Scott and the rest, his refusal to attend might have helped him with Republican voters while hurting the competition. Trump would have taken the DeSantis line in the aftermath, declaring it an act of treason against the right to accept PR opportunities offered by the network Jeff Zucker built. He’d be the populist hero standing up to “the enemy of the people” whereas any Republican who agreed to a town hall would be attacked as RINO. That scenario is now averted.

Beyond that, and as loath as I am to credit Trump, I prefer a Republican Party that engages with the mainstream press to one that reserves comment exclusively for right-wing propaganda outlets. The political and institutional culture of those outlets is squalid, as we were recently reminded; an America where Gateway Pundit is more likely to feature an interview with the president than the New York Times is not a better America. The realization that, of the top two Republican candidates, Donald Trump is the one who’s less likely to cocoon himself in platforms promising fawning coverage is alarming.

A healthy American right would have vastly more engagement with opinion across the rest of the country than it presently does, and as urgently as possible. If giving the coup plotter an hour on CNN to hopefully embarrass himself before a crowd of voters helps normalize an ethic of engagement beyond the bubble, to whatever modest degree, that’s worth doing. There are worse things that could happen than having a bunch of glassy-eyed Fox junkies turn the channel to CNN for a night.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.