CNN town hall highlights media’s struggle with how to cover Trump and his lies

A debate over how journalists should cover former President Trump is underway as he seeks another term. It comes after an unruly CNN town hall where Trump spouted lies about the 2020 election, mocked the woman he was found liable of sexually abusing and dodged policy questions all before a supportive audience in New Hampshire. James Fallows and Mark Lukasiewicz joined Geoff Bennett to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Geoff Bennett:

    A fierce debate over how journalists should question and cover former President Donald Trump is unfolding as he seeks another term in the White House and after a freewheeling and unruly CNN town hall last night, where Mr. Trump spouted lies about the 2020 election, mocked the woman he was found liable of sexually abusing, and dodged policy questions, all before a lively and supportive audience of New Hampshire voters.

    Joining us now for perspective is James Fallows, a former presidential speechwriter and author of the "Breaking the News" newsletter on Substack. And Mark Lukasiewicz, he's a veteran television producer at NBC News and ABC News, and is now the dean of the Communication School at Hofstra University.

    Thank you both for being with us.

    And, Mark, I will start with you because you wrote last night that Donald Trump is demonstrably unworthy of the risk that CNN chose to take with their live town hall.

    Why? Why was that apparent to you well, ahead of time?

  • Mark Lukasiewicz, Hofstra University:

    When you stage a live event, you're taking a risk, because you're turning over a platform, as a network, as a news organization, that you have built, a relationship of trust with an audience.

    And, at least partly, you're turning over that platform to the live guest who is going to say whatever they're going to say. It was completely predictable, completely 100 percent predictable, that Donald Trump was going to lie, was going to mislead, was going to obfuscate, and was going to try to railroad the moderator. And that's what he did.

    And CNN gave Donald Trump a platform to do that. I think that is really not a transaction news organizations should be making any more, particularly with this candidate. If somebody comes in front of your cameras, and you're going to deliver your audience to them for uninterrupted, lengthy fire hoses of lies and deception and, in this case, misogyny and worse, I don't think that's something that a news organization should do if they're trying to serve an audience.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Jim, taking Mark's point, Donald Trump is, of course, the Republican front-runner. He is among the few people who have a clear route to winning the White House again. And the media has to cover him.

    So, how do we do it smartly and responsibly?

  • James Fallows, Substack Columnist:

    Well, I will start by saying that, even though Mark and I did not coordinate this at all, I see it just the way he has laid out, that the problem there was the kind of event it was, which was a gladiatorial, kind of pro wrestling event, and the fact that it was live.

    So there was no chance to really catch up with the stream of falsehoods that Donald Trump was putting out, even though Kaitlan Collins, I think, did her best to try to be a fact-checker, but just the circumstances did not allow it.

    So I think we have seen the one bright spot side of the CNN event last night is that it shows us what not to do, that nobody should replicate that, and that if Donald Trump is going to be on the stage with other Republican candidates, and perhaps eventually with the Democratic candidate, it needs to be under circumstances where there is some rule of reason, some rule of fact, where there is somebody who is in charge who can say, here are the rules of our discussion.

    Here are the questions we're going to ask you. Here are the ways in which people will answer. Here's the time people will be allotted. So I think that's the only bright side I see. Everybody now knows what not to do.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Mark, you have the experience of being a former TV news executive, who is now a dean at a journalism school.

    Are the conventions of traditional journalism, are they good enough for the moment in which we live, where you have a candidate who seeks to exploit those conventions, those journalistic standards, for his own purposes?

  • Mark Lukasiewicz:

    No, they're not good enough.

    And, listen, the — I agree with Jim. But I think, if we're honest with ourselves, we knew what we learned last night four years ago, and, arguably, even eight years ago. I had the misfortune of being a producer of a forum that involved Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And we were pilloried in the press after that event for not confronting Donald Trump live for his stream of lies.

    This has been going on for a long time. Donald Trump is more than just an unconventional candidate. He is a candidate who doesn't play by the rules of the democracy, doesn't play by the rules of the Constitution, as everyone saw on January 6.

    So, for journalists to play by the traditional rules and think all of that is going to be fine is a problem. It's a real challenge. Let's be clear. You pointed out, Geoff, he's likely to be the nominee. When he becomes the nominee, journalists, we all have a responsibility to cover him.

    But do we turn over our platforms when we know what the result is going to be? Or do we say, no, you have disqualified yourself by repeatedly abusing our relationship of trust with our audience, so we will put your interview on tape, Mr. Trump, and then we will see what we do with it?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Jim, I see you shaking your head there. How should we in the media cover not just Donald Trump, but any candidate who displays openly anti-democratic tendencies and says things that are demonstrably false?

  • James Fallows:

    I think it's worth recognizing that Donald Trump really is a case of one.

    There are other people who are having what I might personally view as anti-democratic policies in this or that state. But Trump is — I think Trump is unique and a unique problem for these journalistic settings in two ways.

    One is the stream of lies. The other is what we saw in Trump's dealings with the crowd last night, when he was intentionally revving them up, appealing to the worst in them, having them laugh at E. Jean Carroll, having them just laugh when he was mugging at Kaitlan Collins.

    And so there aren't other politicians who as freely do that when they're on the big stage. So I think that most forum — I think that dealing with Trump is a problem for dealing with Trump. And dealing with the rest of the candidates we're going to have over this next year-and-a-half, I think a robust — a robustified version of our normal rules can apply. Then Trump has his own set of rules, which he has earned.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Donald Trump so often casts the pursuit of truth as a partisan enterprise.

    And one of the things we saw back in 2016 and the years that followed, particularly from legacy media organizations, was this effort to play down his radicalism, to find euphemisms to describe his behavior, to appear, so that the organizations appeared neutral and objective.

    What are some best practices to guard against that, Mark?

  • Mark Lukasiewicz:

    It's a tough question.

    Look, what you're talking about, I think, is normalizing, right, is looking at things that are, in our whole history, abnormal, out of the norm, out of the realm of expected behavior. And we in the press start to recognize those as just regular features of the game.

    I think journalism does have a responsibility to democracy. We exist in a liberal democracy, because of the rules and the understandings and the norms of a liberal democracy. And I think journalists — these are not easy questions. And I'm not sitting here saying I have every answer to these, because I certainly don't.

    But I think these are questions newsrooms have to wrestle with.

  • Geoff Bennett:


  • James Fallows:


    And I think there's — this is something where I will say a case that applies to Trump could also apply more broadly. It is comfortable for journalists, especially the more mainstream the organization, the more comfortable it is to be in a central position, to say, one side says this, the other side says that, the so — the famous both-sides-ism.

    And there are certain things going on originated by Trump, but we see other places, that are — can't be fairly described as an other side standoff.

    I would put the current threat to have the U.S. default on its sovereign debt be in that category. And the more that is portrayed as a partisan gridlock, as where each side — one side says this, the other side says that, the less clearly it is presented as a threat to the financial integrity of the United States.

    I think that is the kind of thing that's not just about Trump, but about other aspects of our politics.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    James Fallows and Mark Lukasiewicz, thank you both for the thoughtful conversation. I appreciate it.

  • Mark Lukasiewicz:

    Thank you.

  • James Fallows:

    Thank you, Geoff.

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