CNN’s upcoming Trump Town Hall is a masterclass in mutual self-interest

It’s been years since CNN hosted former President Donald Trump for an appearance or interview on the network he’s long decried as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.” In fact, aside from his various invectives against the station on social media, the most significant interaction between Trump and CNN of late came several months ago in the form of a nearly $500 million defamation suit, alleging the network had enacted a “campaign of libel and slander” against the once and aspiring future president in its recent coverage. So it was surprising to some when CNN announced this week that Trump had nevertheless accepted an invitation to appear at an upcoming “Town Hall” interview on May 10, where he would answer questions from “a live audience of New Hampshire Republicans and undeclared voters who say they intend to vote in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary.”

“CNN has a longstanding tradition of hosting leading presidential candidates for town halls and political events as a critical component of the network’s robust campaign coverage,” corporate owners Warner Media explained in a statement, adding that “this event with former President Trump will be the first of many for CNN in the coming months.”

Is this “journalistic suicide”?

Their business-as-usual posture notwithstanding, CNN’s decision to platform someone that’s based much of his political fortunes on attacking the media writ large, and their network in particular, has raised some questions of whether the company truly internalized any lessons it might have learned from covering Trump’s previous two campaigns. 

CNN is “committing journalistic suicide,” broadcaster and former CNN commentator Keith Olberman claimed, adding that “if there was ONE consensus about 2024 it was that ‘covering” Trump the way they did in 2016 (handing him live blocks of free airtime with no fact-checking possible) was irresponsible.” Olberman’s concern over lessons not learned was echoed by Democratic Coalition co-founder Scott Dworkin, who questioned why CNN would “give the biggest pathological liar in politics a platform to spread his bullshit.”

Former Clinton administration official and Daily Beast columnist David Rothkopf was slightly more prescriptive in his critique, predicting the town hall would be a “sham” unless Trump was forced to answer “why should any American voter support a candidate who sought to undermine the Constitution, institutions and values he was sworn to uphold?” Media Matters for America CEO Angelo Carusone shared a similar concern, conceding to The Guardian that ignoring Trump’s commanding lead in the GOP presidential field “benefits no one.” At the same time, he cautioned that if the network allows Trump to use the town hall to lie without pushback, “they have no excuse. CNN isn’t being graded on a curve here.”

What’s inside CNN’s “compelling pitch” to team Trump?

Beyond simply questioning the wisdom of holding a Trump town hall as a mere newsworthy event in and of itself, however, Carusone also highlighted the larger context in which this is all taking place, noting that “this comes just as Fox’s ratings are in freefall and CNN’s shift [under new network chairman Chris Licht] hasn’t borne any fruit.”

This insinuation that there are broader forces at work has seemingly been borne out with additional reporting from The Associated Press, which cited “a Trump adviser who was not authorized to speak publicly” as claiming that “CNN executives made a compelling pitch to Trump” in order to lure him back to the network he so often disparaged. According to Guardian reporter Hugo Lowell, that compelling pitch is, at least in Trump’s mind, an “understanding that campaign could get more surrogates on air.” Here, then, the town hall becomes something of a quid pro quo, in which both parties move closer to their disparate, but not wholly unrelated, goals. For Trump, appearing on CNN himself is not only the first step of a broader effort to reengage with the mainstream media outlets he has largely forsaken since 2020 but to overtly work to shape their coverage of him, as well. CNN, meanwhile, can continue to frame itself as successfully pivoting toward the political center, as has been a goal of Licht since he assumed control of the network last year. 

There is, however, yet another layer of potential motivation animating this ostensibly mutually beneficial agreement between Trump and CNN. And unsurprisingly, at least when Trump is involved, it boils down to a single thing: revenge. 

As Carusone hinted to The Guardian, Fox News and its rocky fortunes of late are the unspoken player in this complicated dynamic. By agreeing to appear on Fox News’ chief cable news competitor, Trump is making “an implicit rebuke” of the network that had so conspicuously gone all in for him during his time in office, Politico’s Alex Eisenstadt wrote this week

“Those close to the former president privately contend that Fox News — and other outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch — have been favorable toward [Florida Republican Gov. Ron] DeSantis,” Eisenstadt continued. Conservative commentator David Frum agreed, tweeting that Trump’s preliminary embrace of CNN is “to punish Fox for its big tilt to DeSantis.” Trump has also reportedly threatened to sit out on at least one of the Fox-hosted Republican presidential primary debates, allegedly asking one associate “why would I have [Fox anchor] Bret Baier” question him, after Baier was among the network figures who called the 2020 presidential race for Joe Biden. 

That Trump is newsworthy for being the dominant Republican force in America today is unquestionable. That he will use his CNN appearance to articulate a clear vision for the country is less assured. That CNN is prepared to address the many challenges inherent in both covering and platforming Trump remains entirely to be seen. 

It’s been years since CNN hosted former President Donald Trump for an appearance or interview on the network he’s long decried as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.” In fact, aside from his various invectives against the station on social media, the most significant interaction between Trump and CNN of late came several months…

It’s been years since CNN hosted former President Donald Trump for an appearance or interview on the network he’s long decried as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.” In fact, aside from his various invectives against the station on social media, the most significant interaction between Trump and CNN of late came several months…