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CNN’s Trump town hall nabs 3.3 million viewers amid brutal criticism

Donald Trump speaks with a woman in a white suit.
Republican Presidential Town Hall with Donald Trump moderated by Kaitlan Collins in New Hampshire.
(John Nowak)
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CNN’s town hall with former President Trump drew 3.3 million viewers on Wednesday, but network executives faced a tsunami of criticism for giving the Republican candidate a platform to spread lies.

The audience counted by Nielsen was the largest for CNN since the network’s coverage of the July hearings over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. While Trump’s appearance delivered a strong number for CNN, it was the size of a typical audience for Tucker Carlson on Fox News before he was fired last month.

CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins grilled Trump for 70 minutes in front of an audience of New Hampshire Republican voters at St. Anselm College in Goffstown. It was the rare appearance by Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential race, on a media outlet that is not friendly to him.

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The crowd gave the event the atmosphere of a Trump rally as members cheered the candidate’s answers, even when he disparaged E. Jean Carroll, the woman who was recently awarded $5 million after a jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing her in 1994.

Trump also repeated his false claims that his 2020 election loss was “rigged” and that then-Vice President Mike Pence could have saved him from defeat by not certifying the election.

Although Collins valiantly battled to correct Trump, attempts to perform fact-checks in real time have often proved futile. Critics said CNN should have known better than to give Trump a forum where it would be impossible to filter out misinformation.

“Live lying works,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. “Live fact-checking does not. Trump is demonstrably unworthy of the risk that CNN chose to take.”

The event was not well-received inside the network, either.

“I was just ashamed,” said one producer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize an employer. “Everybody knows Trump lies. Everybody knows what he’s going to say. His propaganda is what his followers want.”

CNN’s own media reporter, Oliver Darcy, said the event evoked the 2016 campaign, when media outlets gave Trump ample airtime as he rewarded them with big audiences. In the years since, CNN’s then-chief, Jeff Zucker, has repeatedly expressed regret for turning Trump into a ratings attraction.

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“It felt like 2016 all over again,” Darcy wrote in his newsletter Wednesday evening. “It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage. 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.”

The showdown was highly anticipated and heavily scrutinized, as it was to be the first appearance by Trump on CNN since 2016. Trump had long been at war with the network under Zucker, frequently attacking the organization as “fake news” in response to unfavorable coverage.

Licht is adding Bill Maher on Friday nights, and that may not be the only comic coming to CNN. But newsgathering is still the priority.

Jan. 30, 2023

Current CNN Chairman Chris Licht has been trying to shift the network’s reputation away from being an anti-Trump voice and has attempted to give more airtime to Republicans.

Licht told his staff that he was proud of Collins and the event. He said the public was “served very well by what we did last night” because it let people know what was at stake in the 2024 election.

A CNN representative said the in-person audience was “curated by the network through community groups, student politics and government, faith groups, agriculture and education organizations, as well as Republican groups. The school and campaign also invited guests.”

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