CNN and CEO Chris Licht came in for ferocious criticism over the chaotic town hall the cable news network held with former president Donald Trump on Wednesday.
Amid his 2024 presidential campaign, Trump sat down with CNN This Morning anchor Kaitlan Collins at the event held in New Hampshire. The 70-minute town hall was populated by mostly Trump supporters and likely Republican voters, and the former president was able to dominate proceedings, overwhelming Collins who tried in vain to correct Trump’s statements and falsehoods about issues including the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, a federal abortion ban, immigration and the war in Ukraine.
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A particularly shocking exchange occurred over E. Jean Carroll, who had this week been awarded $5 million in damages after a New York jury held Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation against the writer. Among other things, Trump once again claimed he did not know who Carroll was and described her as a “whack job” to loud cheers from the audience.
The lack of pushback from Collins and Trump’s bullying performance was a boon to his campaign team. On the New York Times live blog of the town hall, reporter Jonathan Swan wrote, “Advisers to Trump are thrilled at how this is going so far for him. They can’t believe he is getting an hour on CNN with an audience that cheers his every line and laughs at his every joke.”
In the days leading up to the town hall, CNN was criticized for platforming Trump, but the backlash against the network, and Licht in particular, went into overdrive as events unfolded. The reaction on social media among the commentariat was almost uniformly negative.
Reacting to the town hall on MSNBC, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called CNN’s decision to platform Trump “shameful” and a “profoundly irresponsible decision.”
“I don’t think Zucker would have let this happen,” tweeted former CNN reporter Rebecca Buck.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, tweeted, “Was that the center to which you wish CNN would return, Chris Licht?”
“This is CNN’s lowest moment as an organization,” journalist James Fallows tweeted.
Former NYT reporter Bill Carter tweeted, “This thing was madness, total madness. Like giving a microphone to Drunk Uncle and saying: go for it!”
“CNN was completely unprepared to hold Trump accountable. CNN has done a complete disservice to our democracy. I withheld judgment on this until I saw it. CNN you failed journalism and our country,” tweeted former George W. Bush aide Matt Dowd.
Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali tweeted, “Trump calls Kaitlin Collins a ‘nasty person’ after she simply did a follow-up. The audience laughed and clapped. Congrats, Chris Licht and CNN leadership. Bravo. What a way to treat your employees.”
CNBC’s media reporter Alex Sherman tweeted, “CNN CEO Chris Licht said he wouldn’t allow anyone on his network that said it’s raining when it’s not. But he’s let someone on now who says it’s raining when it’s not, and he added hundreds of people to applaud when he does it.”
“This was not Kaitlin Collins’ fault. The format was impossible and CNN’s bosses should have known that. Chris Licht is rapidly becoming the Elon Musk of CNN,” tweeted Charlie Sykes of the Bulwark.
There was also a backlash to the Trump town hall internally at CNN. The network’s media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote in the Reliable Sources newsletter, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.” Darcy added that “CNN and new network boss Chris Licht are facing a fury of criticism — both internally and externally over the event.”
Licht took over as CEO of CNN in February 2022, after Jeff Zucker stepped down for failing to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague. Under his tenure, Licht has sought to reposition CNN as a news-first organization, moving away from opinion-led programs and cutting back on its use of the “Breaking News” banner. He has also had to institute sweeping cost cuts demanded by Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav, notably jettisoning CNN+ less than a month after the streaming service launched.
On the talent side, Licht has been bold in cutting star anchors, reporters and big-name pundits including Brian Stelter, John Harwood and Jeffrey Toobin. He also oversaw the shock decision to fire longtime CNN anchor Don Lemon in April.
In a statement shared with The Hollywood Reporter, a network spokesperson responded to the widespread criticism CNN has faced for organizing the town hall.
“Tonight Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist,” CNN’s message read. “She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner. That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”
The following morning, Licht was aware of the backlash and social media furor when he addressed the reaction to the town hall on CNN’s editorial call, audio of which THR obtained. “We all know covering Donald Trump is messy and tricky, and will continue to be messy and tricky, but it’s our job. We’re going to do it fairly, toughly and aggressively — as Kaitlan did last night,” Licht said, in part. “I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night because it laid bare and created, in the words of Joe Scarborough, ‘a political earthquake,’ and that people woke up and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before. And if someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, it damn well should be on CNN.”
May 11, 6 a.m. Updated to include quotes from CNN’s editorial call.
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