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It took Donald Trump just about three minutes to start spewing lies on CNN’s Wednesday night Town Hall. And he didn’t stop until 70 minutes later.
He lied about election fraud. He lied about the Jan. 6 insurrection. He lied about his border wall, about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (claiming he could end the war “in one day”), about the purloined classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago and about E. Jean Carroll, the woman whom he sexually assaulted back in the 1990s and whom, just the day before, a jury in New York had awarded five million of Trump’s dollars in a civil defamation suit.
None of it was in the least bit surprising. Trump lies. That’s what he does.
What was surprising, a little shocking and certainly disappointing, was the venue in which Trump spun his fabrications. It was CNN, not Fox, that had invited the twice-impeached, soon-to-be-indicted ex-president onto its airwaves for an evening of perfidious pontification. The same CNN that Trump had once dubbed the “enemy of the people” and that he had tried to ban from White House press briefings because of its once-unflinching pushback against his endless mendacities.
CNN’s explanation for giving Trump those 70 minutes of Town Hall airtime? “He’s the front-runner,” David Zaslav, chief of Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company, argued during an appearance on CNBC, noting that Trump was so far the leading Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential race. “He has to be on our network. The U.S. has a divided government. We need to hear both voices.”
But that reasoning was, as former Attorney General Bill Barr once said of Trump’s election fraud claims, “bulls–t.” CNN didn’t invite Trump onto its prime time lineup out of any sense of civic duty. The man who once said of women that he could “grab ‘em by the pussy” wasn’t there for a reasoned exchange on the ideological choices and governmental challenges facing Americans as we approach the 2024 election.
He was there because of ratings.
As you might recall, last summer Zaslav and his CNN apparatchik Chris Licht steered the network on a screeching turn to the right, firing critics of Trump’s “fake news” like longtime media reporter Brian Stelter and instructing on-air talent not to use phrases like “the Big Lie” to describe Trump’s bogus election fraud claims. The theory then was that by pivoting to the MAGA crowd, CNN might be able to peel away some Fox viewers and bolster its sinking ratings.
Boy, was that a mistake. Over the last year, CNN has continued to sink behind Fox and even liberal-leaning MSNBC. Back in April 2022, CNN’s average total viewership was 636,000 a night; in April of 2023 it was 533,000, down about 16%. In the key 25-54 demographic, the falloff has been even steeper, with a 21% drop, from 143,000 to 106,000.
Still, in true Trumpian fashion, CNN decided to double down by inviting Trump himself, the pied piper of the insurrectionist set, onto its platform. And despite the best efforts of moderator Kaitlan Collins, who repeatedly attempted to correct his rambling denigrations, the results were as predictable as Trump’s taste in extra-long neckwear. He rolled over Collins — “You’re a nasty person,” he sneered at her at one point — and kept the misinformation flowing, much to the delight of the New Hampshire Republican primary voters who hooted their approval from the audience.
No doubt CNN will indeed enjoy a sweet if short-lived ratings boost from this atrocity of a broadcast. But chasing after MAGA viewers is, of course, a dangerous game, as Fox News itself knows all too well. Remember, it was that network’s obsessive compulsion to keep Trump supporters watching that got Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham in such hot water during the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit when it was revealed how those hosts willfully lied about Trump’s election fraud claims in order to keep Trump supporters tuning in.
Fox ended up paying three-quarters of a billion dollars in damages for that mistake.
CNN risks losing even more: Its credibility as a once-esteemed news-gathering organization.