CNN won big ratings for its controversial town hall with former President Trump — but also outraged some of its own talent for essentially handing over its platform to the GOP presidential frontrunner and his supporters for an hour.
More than 3 million people watched Wednesday night’s town hall, early data from Nielsen Media Research showed, representing a more than 300 percent increase from a typical weeknight at 8 p.m. for a network consistently running behind Fox News and MSNBC.
Yet CNN also found itself at the center of a political and media controversy after Trump steamrolled moderator Kaitlan Collins’s efforts to fact-check a series of false statements he made in front of a crowd that was vocally supportive of the Republican.
“It was a total debacle and I’ve never been more ashamed to work at CNN,” one prominent on-air talent at the network told The Hill on Thursday. “I don’t think anybody came out looking good. This is entirely a corporate and management failure. They should have anticipated how out of control Trump would be … to think he was going to act more presidential in that kind of setting is just naivety on a galactic scale.”
CNN is taking a lot of heat for handing over the network to Donald Trump and his supporters, even from its own on-air talent.(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
During the event, Trump repeated his false claims about his loss in the 2020 election, waved away charges of sexual misconduct and repeatedly interrupted Collins, referring to her at one point as “a nasty person.”
He said he never knew E. Jean Carroll, the woman who a day prior won a civil lawsuit in New York accusing Trump of sexual abuse and defamation.
During one particularly jarring moment, the crowd in the St. Anselm College auditorium in New Hampshire whooped, cheered and laughed as Trump mocked Carroll over her accusations of rape in a New York department store in 1997.
“This woman, I don’t know her. I never met her. I have no idea who she is,” Trump said.
Democratic lawmakers blasted CNN for putting Trump on the air, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) calling the town hall “a disservice to democracy, but also a major harm for women, survivors, & people who rely on repro rights.”
“CNN allowing sexual assault to be treated like a joke to an applauding audience is egregious,” she said. “At this point it’s not abt Trump- we know him. It’s abt the programming.”
CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy in his newsletter noted that new network CEO Chris Licht was “facing a fury of criticism — both internally and externally over the event.”
“And CNN aired it all. On and on it went. It felt like 2016 all over again. It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage,” the media critic wrote of his own network. “And Collins was put in an uncomfortable position, given the town hall was conducted in front of a Republican audience that applauded Trump, giving a sense of unintended endorsement to his shameful antics.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called CNN’s town hall with former President Trump “a disservice to democracy, but also a major harm for women, survivors, & people who rely on repro rights.” (Annabelle Gordon)
CNN defended the town hall after its conclusion, touting the work of Collins.
“Tonight, Kaitlan Collins exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist,” the network said in a statement late Wednesday night defending its star anchor.
“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,” the statement continued. “That is CNN’s role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”
Both Wednesday night and Thursday, however, plenty of the criticism of CNN was that the format in which it held the town hall gave little opportunity for Collins or anyone else to fact-check Trump or hold him to account.
“I’m not sure we made enough news to counterbalance just giving Trump a perch to lie from with a laugh track,” another employee at the network said.
CNN defended anchor and town hall host Kaitlan Collins, but many said the format didn’t allow her to factcheck former President Trump. (Greg Nash)
Plenty of attention was being paid Thursday to the audience at the town hall, which was highly supportive of Trump.
“It felt like we got some of these people from a MAGA rally,” the on-air talent said.
CNN on Thursday clarified it had curated the audience through community, student politics and government, faith groups, as well as agriculture and education organizations. The school and campaign also invited guests, the network said.
Trump, a day before the event, said CNN had made his campaign “an offer [he] couldn’t refuse,” so he agreed to participate in the town hall.
In response, a representative for the network told The Hill, “we offered him the opportunity to connect with New Hampshire voters via a live televised CNN Town Hall event.”
Late on Thursday, anchor Anderson Cooper defended his network’s decision to host the event with Trump during an opening monologue on his prime-time show, though he said he “understands the anger,” being directed at CNN.
“You have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again,” Cooper said. “But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?”
The town hall comes at an important time for the network, as Licht marks one year on the job, which he has spent in part attempting to rehabilitate the channel’s reputation with conservatives and other critics amid increasing ratings pressures and budget shortfalls.
Ratings across cable news have steadily declined since Trump’s first term in office but have hit CNN most acutely. The company also saw its profits dip to under $1 billion for the first time since 2016 last year while Licht administered widespread layoffs to its editorial personnel during his first six months on the job.
Licht, a former “Morning Joe” showrunner who most recently worked as executive producer of CBS’s “The Late Show,” was hired last year by David Zaslav, the media mogul who runs the network’s new parent company WarnerBros. Discovery.
Zaslav last week defended the company’s decision to host a town hall with Trump, saying “we need to hear both voices,” and noting the company’s investors are looking forward to a “great political season coming.”
“That’s what you see. Republicans are on the air at CNN. Democrats are on the air. All voices should be heard on CNN,” Zaslav said during an appearance on CNBC.
CNN’s chief executive at the same time has similarly pushed back on punditry and speculation that he is dragging CNN to the center or trying to appease Trump supporters.
During the network’s morning editorial call Thursday, Licht reportedly acknowledged the criticism the network was facing this week saying covering Trump can be “tricky and messy,” and adding “America was served very well by what we did last night.”
But some CNN staffers aren’t buying that line of thinking.
“I really wonder what his [Licht] private view is of how this all went down,” another employee at the network said. “There has to be some sense of self-awareness here that this was a pretty big f— up.”