When I think about CNN’s shortcomings over the years, it’s mostly about the regular stable of commentators they assemble more than the hosts. They really like to hire major insiders who’ve been very close to a president. I’m thinking of folks like James Carville, Paul Begala, Donna Brazille, David Axelrod, Alex Castellanos, Scott Jennings and Pat Buchanan. This brings a certain gravitas and experience to CNN’s coverage, but it also creates a gigantic blind spot and disconnect with the perspective of ordinary Americans. If there is anything that Fox News excels at, it’s avoiding this trap. Their commentators better resemble watch you’ll find at the end of the bar during last call at your average American tavern: overly enthusiastic but also uninformed and incorrect. Both approaches are badly flawed, just for different reasons.
It was inevitable that Donald Trump would clash with CNN’s culture which celebrates establishmentarianism and the norms and virtues of our political system. It was also certain that CNN would respond by moving farther and farther to the left, but only because the left was the only unit remaining with any power to uphold the system’s cherished practices and traditions. While CNN initially tried to treat Trump like any other president, they found this impossible and repeatedly dismissed commentators they brought in to represent Trump’s perspective because his perspective was warped, transgressive and dangerous.
After four years of Trump in the White House, CNN woke up and realized they didn’t like how far they’d drifted from the political center. With Trump gone, they saw an opportunity to recalibrate and take on less of a partisan tone. Business considerations drove this decision more than anything else, but it also represented a return to the network’s traditional role as a non-aligned defender of the status quo. It’s where they want to be and the role they want to fill. And it may be a flavorless and pinched kind of political coverage, but it has its place. It’s the perfect kind of format for debates and town halls, loved by neither side but still largely trusted.
The problem is that Trump didn’t actually go away but declared himself once again as a candidate for president. Worse, the polls indicated he’s the clear frontrunner to win the Republican nomination. And this is the result:
News that CNN will hold a town hall with former President Donald Trump in New Hampshire next Wednesday came as a surprise on multiple fronts. For one, Trump, who repeatedly dismissed CNN (among several other outlets) as “fake news” throughout his presidency, has not done an interview with the network since his 2016 presidential campaign. Plus, it’s a risky move for CNN, given the challenge of responsibly platforming the twice-impeached, indicted, insurrection-inciting former president. Trump still refuses to accept the results of the election he lost nearly two and a half years ago to Joe Biden, which begs the question: Does CNN plan to fact-check Trump in real time? What happens if Trump repeats the lie that the 2020 election was “rigged,” as he did just last week from the rally stage? I put such questions to CNN political director David Chalian on Tuesday, as the network prepares its program.
“We obviously can’t control what Donald Trump says—that’s up to him,” said Chalian. “What we can do is prod, ask questions, follow up, and try to get as revealing answers as possible.” Chalian added that it’s “not new for CNN journalists to question Donald Trump” (though he didn’t specify whether this would take the form of a live fact-check). Ultimately, it’s CNN’s view that while Trump is “a unique candidate,” who “since being president has a series of investigations around him”—and “there was how he left the presidency,” Chalian also noted, ostensibly referencing the January 6 insurrection—the network is going to treat him like any other presidential candidate. While “all of that context makes him a unique candidate,” it “does not make our approach any different, in the sense that we hold every candidate who comes to CNN accountable for their words,” Chalian said. He added that CNN has approached every major presidential candidate and potential candidate about participating in CNN’s coverage—the presidential town hall being a part of that.
The key phrase here from CNN political director David Chalian is “the network is going to treat [Trump] like any other presidential candidate.”
Look, you and I are not stupid and we know why this is ridiculous. I don’t need to list all the reasons like him currently answering for a rape he’s alleged to have committed in the 1990’s or the fact that he’s been indicted for creating false business records to cover up affairs with a porn star and a Playboy bunny. Let’s stick to the obvious. He’s under investigation and likely to be indicted in both state and federal courts for attempting a coup d’etat that resulted in deaths, injuries, and massive property damage. He cannot be treated “like any other presidential candidate.” An instinctive defender of American institutions like CNN should know this in its bones.
What we’re seeing is CNN overcorrect. In their bid to return to their role as neutral referee of the political middle, they’re normalizing the architect of the biggest threat to the Establishment since South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter. This isn’t the kind of correction CNN needs to make. It’s taking the one thing they’ve always been kind of good at doing and throwing it in the rubbish bin.
Their problem wasn’t ever primarily that they were cheerleaders for the political elite’s performance and decisonmaking. Their problem was that they wouldn’t broaden the debate to include those were left out or suffering under the status quo. That might make it seem like a good choice to include the kinds of voices attracted to Trump’s political movement, but his movement is not about improving things within the bounds of the laws and constitution. It is an illegal movement led by a criminal.
CNNs political coverage has always been badly flawed and it can do better than returning to the status quo before Trump. But what they’re doing now is closer to suicide. They’re legitimizing a political actor and movement that will destroy them and their cherished institutions. And they’re doing it at precisely the moment when that actor and movement are on the cusp of facing true accountability for their crimes.