In a new story from CNBC, reporter Alex Sherman reports that inside CNN, company CEO Chris Licht has rewatched the tapes of the disastrous CNN-provided "town hall" feting Donald Trump last week and has privately expressed some regrets.
Not over hosting a new campaign town hall for Donald Trump, the first president to attempt a coup against the legitimate United States government, mind you. Licht has been very clear that he's not about to run a "news" network that makes value judgments on whether or not the United States government ought to be overthrown, and neither regrets hosting a notorious and now proven-dangerous propagandist, nor regrets providing him with as fawning an audience as CNN could muster.
He just wishes his decisions, which were transparently doomed to failure from the moment they sputtered into existence in his head, had somehow produced "substance" despite everyone involved at CNN going to great lengths to make sure there would be as little "substance" as possible. And Sherman's story shows that not only does Licht and CNN still not get it, but that the organization and the nation's wider media doesn't have a damn bit of knowledge about how they might cover political crises except as substanceless showboating.
CNN isn't the network for "news," and they spend very little of their time doing it. CNN's the place you go for eight-headed panel discussions about the campaign implications of Donald Trump attempting a coup or getting himself arrested on book-cooking charges. How will this change the race, the panel asks, as the Republican presidential candidate turns himself in after a felony indictment. CNN and Licht not only don't get it, they don't get it to the point where CNN, like Fox, is doing active damage to democracy in their ratings-seeking incompetence. None of Sherman's reporting suggests anything other than that Licht is in over his head—that he simply doesn't know or care enough about news coverage to manage it.
Licht continues to stand by the concept of the town hall, telling people both inside and outside CNN that history will look kindly on the network’s decision to interview Trump in front of cheering supporters in a live town hall format.
I realize you have to be a special kind of narcissist to think you deserve to run a news network to begin with, but history will recognize my wisdom even if the rest of you peons do not is typically the justification powerful people use when their decisions have led to such all-encompassing screw-ups that they no longer expect anyone to be able to come up with a plausible defense during our own lifetimes. See: Bush Administration, Iraq War.
Licht said he wished he had introduced the in-person audience to TV watchers so that viewers could better identify who they were, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions were private.
This is a man who does not get it. This is a man who graduated from Does Not Get It Technical College, went on to earn his Master's Degree at Still Does Not Get It University And Polo Club, and now lives on a houseboat on Lake Will Never Get It. The problem is not that CNN did not properly introduce the hooting and jeering audience of Republicans willing to support Donald Trump even after he pushed a crowd of extremists to violently attempt the overthrow of the government on his behalf. The problem is that Licht and CNN thought that populating the "town hall" crowd only with Republicans still willing to support Trump, even after Trump used hoaxes and propaganda to justify an attempt to overthrow the government for his own gain, was a plausible setup for a supposed “town hall” to begin with.
Providing a politician with a pre-filtered audience consisting only of his own supporters does not, in any plausible sense of the word, count as a "town hall." It is never a "town hall," not even when shady politicians call it that, because "town halls" generally involve talking to town residents who have not been pre screened to ensure nobody in the audience will voice disagreement to the things the politician said. The audience members were even reportedly told they were allowed to applaud, but booing was discouraged.
It is a rally. The word you are looking for is "rally," CNN. As one of the most prominent alleged news organizations in the world, it seems deeply embarrassing for the company to not know a campaign rally when it sees one. That would seem to be one of the more basic requirements for a company that premises itself on being able to tell Americans what is happening on their television screens.
But no, Licht's takeaway is that CNN was absolutely right to have a "Donald Trump Town Hall" that didn't include any Americans other than Trump's own most sedition-willing supporters. Maybe host Kaitlan Collins wouldn't have looked quite as much like she got rolled by Trump and audience alike if CNN viewers had been warned in advance that "town hall" was a dishonest bit of advertising and this thing was actually going to be a CNN-sponsored Trump rally premised on Donald Trump berating only one reporter in front of an audience of his fans instead of his usual habit of just pointing generally to the press pen and berating a dozen at once.
Licht and other CNN executives also pointed to direction elements CNN could have done differently, such as focusing the camera only on Collins when she tried to fight off Trump’s lies about election fraud in 2020, rather than using wide shots on both Trump and Collins. That way, CNN could draw the audience’s focus to the substance of the question rather than the spectacle of Trump.
Oh my f---ing f---, is that what the person in charge of this whole news network thinks would have solved the problem? Camera angles?
I think if anything we may all have been overestimating Licht's abilities. Yeah, during the few times when host Collins explicitly pushed back on an outright Trump lie, or during the near-infinite number of times when she ought to have pushed back but didn't, make sure you get her on close-up.
CNN could have also graphically shown each question while Trump spoke, emphasizing his answers didn’t always match the topic at hand.
Or CNN could have pointed it out to Trump and the audience more explicitly, rather than relying on every BillyJoeBob stuck in an airport terminal to divine it in a sort of "which of these pictures is different" sort of way.
The problem is that from the beginning Licht and everyone else who's ever access to the CNN offices knew beforehand that Trump was infamous for bullshitting audiences with flurries of lies so intense that correcting even a small portion of them would take more of a host's time than could possibly be allocated to the task. That is how Trump spreads his misinformation; he evades, then he lies, then he demonizes. That's the pattern.
Licht and CNN knew for a fact that Trump would fill the interview with outright lies, many of them vicious and quite dangerous. They chose to format their Trump publicity appearance in the single way that would allow Trump to tell those lies with the least possible pushback. One moderator, pressed for time; an audience made up strictly of Trump backers who would not themselves react with outrage if Trump said something particularly audacious.
The whole event was set up in a format that would not allow correction of his false statements. We cannot even call this a pattern, with Licht; his decisions have uniformly sought to boost the legitimacy of the anti-democratic right and of Trump's particular gaggle of sedition-backing grifters by embracing them despite or perhaps even because of their histories as propagandists.
Licht, a journalistic incompetent, appears to believe that news coverage consists of allowing dishonest actors to spread their dishonesty under CNN's own banner—and that correcting the predictable on-air lies from those figures is distinctly not something the network's actual journalists ought to be pressing for.
Licht said he wished that after the town hall he’d had the network anchors focus on the news Trump made, such as his claim that he would settle Russia’s war with Ukraine within 24 hours or his refusal to weigh in on a federal ban on abortion. CNN could have gone live to a reporter in Ukraine, as an example, which would have reminded the audience of the network’s journalistic range.
Again, this is cartoonish stuff from Licht. Of course it is; once you've determined that you will host a straight-out campaign rally for the promoter of hoax-premised sedition, we can hardly be surprised that each of his other ideas also revolves around tweaking the style of the coverage rather than its substance.
Trump's refusal to comment on his party's attempts to push forward a nationwide abortion ban are certainly significant, from a campaign standpoint. Do you know, CNN, what would have been significant from a news standpoint? A full confrontation with Trump about the now indisputable evidence that he attempted to overthrow the United States government. A confrontation that not one major outlet in our supposed "free press" has ever pressured for.
For Licht and the network's hosts and journalists, an attempted coup remains an afterthought to every newer, more petty news cycle. The show must go on. The network and all the others do not give a particular damn if Donald Trump tried to overthrow the government. For Licht and the rest, the question is: how this will play on the campaign trail and will they get those sweet, sweet ratings? Always and forever, for the pundit classes, the campaign trail. No values, no limits, no bounds, no journalism. Only the campaign trail, now and forever.
There is no chance CNN head Chris Licht or his owners or subordinates will ever be anything better than a rudderless incompetent when it comes to the company's approach to "news." Licht instead continues to focus most of his actual "review" of his town hall disaster on making sure CNN anchors and reporters do not publicly acknowledge how damaging the event was, "dressing down" media reporter Oliver Darcy and his editor for criticizing Trump's "spectacle of lies" during the event.
This would seem to be exactly what Licht himself now says was needed, after the event; a follow-up by network hosts to put Trump's shameful behavior in context. But when somebody actually did it, Licht and other CNN executives held an editorial call chastising Darcy for being "too emotional" in describing Trump's parade of lies.
So Licht is lying, then, and it's quite possible Sherman's own report of Licht's regrets is nothing more than a CNN-pushed effort at damage control in which CNN insiders told Sherman that Licht had at least the small shred of competence necessary to have deduced that his "town hall" was indeed a catastrophe.
It might be that Sherman's sources are only trying to salvage Licht's own reputation here, and nothing else; sure, CNN's event feting the man who attempted to overthrow our government might have been badly planned and even more badly executed, but next time he'll tell people they need more camera angles! Maybe some live shots! Look at Chris here, he's practically the next Ed Murrow!
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