By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Much of the media is wringing its hands over whether to ignore 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump or cover him. And if they cover him, how to do so.
Some journalists argue that since the former president is the current front runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, one can’t ignore him. They then pretend to grapple helplessly with how to handle a candidate who is being investigated for various kinds of criminality and who spouts inflammatory lies and abusive rants with every breath he takes. And eventually, they throw up their hands at the difficulty.
After Trump’s four years in the White House, sandwiched between two presidential campaigns, one would think that most of the media could have figured out some ways to deal with his tactics.
But okay. Let’s start with how you don’t cover such a candidate.
You don’t—as CNN did for the Trump New Hampshire town hall on May 10—hand him an audience filled solely with his supporters to act as his cheering section rather than provide a true cross section of voters. As Fortune reported, CNN allowed Trump “an audience of Republicans and independents inclined to vote for him.”
You don’t set up the interview format in such a way that allows him to ignore your questions and roll right over you to spout all sorts of vitriol that has no connection to the question asked.
And you don’t ask open-ended questions that permit him to make long speeches filled with the innumerable lies and disinformation he wants to spread, delivered so quickly that it makes any fact-checking your interviewer tries to do ineffectual.
Kaitlan Collins, cohost of CNN This Morning, conducted the New Hampshire town hall interview. Collins valiantly tried to correct Trump’s many lies as he told them. But her manner was quite subdued. Trump repeatedly spoke right over her and kept going like a runaway freight train tooting its whistle. At one point, when Collins hesitantly and deferentially tried to insist on getting an answer to a question, Trump called her a “nasty person.”
Of course, his chosen audience laughed at that.
As they did when he coarsely enlarged upon his defamation of E. Jean Carroll, calling her a “wack job,” and saying, “What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you’re playing hanky panky in a dressing room?” Carroll had just—the day before--won a defamation lawsuit against Trump to the tune of $5 million, and his repeated town hall denigration may give her legal cause to sue him again.
Many in the media have expressed sympathy for poor Kaitlan Collins, faced with Trump’s antics and an anti-media audience cheering him on.
But not so fast. Her bosses chose the audience. And according to MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, Collins spent her many hours of preparation in consultation with CNN’s CEO Chris Licht and network executives Mark Preston and David Chalian. Presumably, together, they decided on the questions Collins used. Questions like Collin’s first one: “why should Americans put you back in the White House?”
As MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell put it, this question did not ask for an answer but invited a speech. Trump obliged by expanding on his lies and pet peeves at length.
Other questions also avoided hard-hitting journalism, opting instead for an Oprah-esque confessional style, geared to eliciting a reveal of the interviewee’s feelings or a redemptive admission. Thus, Collins asked whether Trump could publicly acknowledge he lost the election, has any regrets about the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, or thinks he owes Mike Pence an apology.
She did not ask why Trump did not call upon any government agency to stop the attack. She did not ask why he took no action to protect Pence from the mob that was vocally threatening to kill him.
Washington Post contributing columnist Ramesh Ponnuru has suggested a number of pointed questions Collins could have asked that might have forced Trump to actually answer the question. Or could have exposed his self-serving contradictions regardless of his answers. Some of Ponnuru’s samples:
Why do so many people who work with you turn against you? Are you bad at hiring people?
In 2020, you said that you had ‘total’ authority to end state lockdowns. Does that mean you were pleased with how long those lockdowns lasted?
Speaking of the 2020 election: If it was rigged against you, why did the people rigging it allow Republicans to flip 14 seats?
When defending yourself against E. Jean Carroll’s accusation of sexual assault, you explained that she wasn’t your “type.” Would you have attacked her if she were your type?
In reaction to the criticism CNN received for its handling of the town hall, the network trotted out Anderson Cooper to act as its apologist. Toeing CNN’s line, Cooper argued that because Trump is the front runner for the Republican nomination and may be the next president, it was appropriate to cover him.
But that was no reason to hand Trump a pep rally. CNN could have offered to interview him—a one-on-one with a seasoned political reporter who would ask Trump pointed questions. Sure, the former president might well decline because he would not be able to control the interview. But that’s his decision. Neither CNN nor any other network or newspaper owes a front runner candidate a forum rigged for the candidate on the candidate’s terms.
Cooper also maintained that the town hall showed that what Trump did before can happen again; that “after last night, no one can say they don’t know what’s out there.”
That is a ridiculous defense. What’s “out there” has been known for years. And certainly, after January 6, 2021, what Trump and his followers are capable of doing is known to anyone not stopping up their ears or hiding in a cave somewhere in a wilderness.
Furthermore, CNN’s show was not warning that Trump could repeat what he has done before. It was furthering his endeavor.
Cooper claimed the audience chosen for the Town Hall was appropriate because Trump’s supporters are representative of half of the country. First, though his supporters may comprise a large portion of the Republican party, they do not necessarily represent half of the country. Certainly not among voters. Especially if one takes into account gerrymandering and voter suppression.
But even if they did constitute half of the country, what about the other half? Why were they not represented at the town hall? CNN chose not to include them.
This was not a neutral event. But even if it had been, neutrality in the face of lies—especially fascistic lies—is actually taking a side.
Finally, Cooper had the nerve to suggest those upset with CNN’s coverage are “living in a silo,” and should want to know what others are thinking.
Addressing this argument, Fortune articulately wrote: “…those of us who find Trump odious are not living in a silo. We absolutely see and understand that half the country is fine with who Trump is and what he stands for.”
As Fortune added, bigotry is not just a “contribution to a range of diverse viewpoints” to which we “should expose ourselves.” It is an evil that “should be denied the oxygen of the media.” And while freedom of speech guarantees the right to advance one’s views, it does not require “unfettered access to media coverage” of those views.
Some Advice on How to Handle Candidate Trump
In the 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd, the crude, Trump-like radio demagogue Lonesome Rhodes is finally undone when his audience hears him express his utter contempt for them on an open mike he doesn’t know is on.
Admittedly, that wouldn’t work with Trump. Much of the country has been primed for decades by reality shows, including Trump’s The Apprentice, to have an appetite for such contempt. His adherents would likely refuse to recognize that Trump’s contempt extends to them. In the words attributed to P.T. Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Some of Trump’s marks may never learn. But how can the media help ensure their numbers are not increased by those whose minds are still reachable?
First, stop letting Trump determine the rules of engagement.
Only offer to interview Trump one-on-one, and ask serious, hard-hitting questions. If he chooses not to accept the offer, and thus foregoes the airtime, that’s his problem.
And if he participates, but evades, rants off-topic and lies, follow the advice of the prominent journalist Kara Anne Swisher. She recently tweeted: “Rather than trying to get him to answer the original question, you need to very quickly call out the lie, then ask him why he chose to lie about it, because arguing about the lie itself is a dead end.”
If a network feels compelled to present a campaign town hall, it should only do so if there is a moderator who can enforce time limits on answering questions, and an audience that is not stacked for a particular candidate. The network should also have separate reporters on hand to conduct simultaneous fact-checking on-air.
Handling candidate Donald Trump is not an impossible project. One simply needs to have the wit, will, and integrity to do it.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.