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Second Chances

Will the Media Blow Their Second Chance With Trump?

A CNN town hall raises difficult questions—and horrible memories.

Robert Perry/Getty Images
Donald Trump wearing a MAGA hat while playing golf in Scotland on Tuesday

It’s possible that Donald Trump won’t participate in any debates in the 2024 presidential race—even if he wins the Republican nomination for president. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the forty-fifth president was planning on skipping at least one of two planned Republican debates, if not both. It’s not out of the question that, if he were to win the GOP nomination—something that seems likely at this admittedly far-off juncture—he might skip out on debates with Joe Biden as well. We may have already seen the last of Donald Trump on a presidential debate stage.

Trump’s decision to skip the GOP debates is not particularly surprising. He has opened up a huge lead in the primary and has little to gain and much to lose by appearing alongside his challengers. For the moment, he also has little to worry about—thus far, there has been little indication that Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Ron DeSantis are capable of laying a glove on him. Trump’s biggest headwind right now isn’t a challenger, but the palpable sense that everyone is sick and tired of him—all the better to lay low (at least by his standards) at the start of the primary season. For a few weeks, Trump has made noises about playing hooky on debate day. This isn’t new, either: In 2016, he skipped the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses (following a feud with Megyn Kelly, who he had made sexist comments about) and 2020’s second presidential debate (because it was going to be on Zoom on account of the fact that he had contracted Covid-19 and lied about it). In both instances, Trump did other events—interviews and rallies meant to distract from the events he was skipping. (Trump’s reasons for potentially skipping 2024’s presidential debates are slightly different: He wants guarantees that his firehose of lies won’t be fact-checked by moderators, even though this rarely happens anyway.)

But even if we don’t see Trump debate his opponents in this year or the next, we’ll certainly be seeing plenty of him in another format. On Monday, CNN announced that it will host a town hall with the former president in New Hampshire next Wednesday.

CNN’s decision to air an interview with Trump was, unsurprisingly, met with criticism given—well, you know—Trump’s whole deal. Trump is the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. But he is also dangerously unhinged. He fomented an insurrection. He has spent the last 2.5 years saying that he won an election that he obviously lost. He is an authoritarian. He is now calling his main rival for the GOP nomination a pedophile. He is also currently facing criminal charges in New York. None of this is normal presidential frontrunner stuff.

Many of CNN’s critics are right to be concerned—the network has lurched to the right in recent months and has recently purged many of its biggest Trump critics. And yet the decision to air the town hall nevertheless raises an important, thorny question for all media outlets as the Republican primary begins: Just how should we cover Donald Trump?

Last month, media outlets—cable news in particular—hit a post-Trump presidency low. Trump’s arrest in Manhattan on campaign finance-related charges led to days of wall-to-wall coverage, even though nothing new was happening. The events of that day were, for all intents and purposes, carefully scripted: Trump traveled from Florida to New York City; he then traveled from his apartment in midtown to a courthouse in lower Manhattan; he was then arrested and sat in a courtroom while the charges were read to him. Those charges were not surprising—the press had known their basic contours for weeks and the crimes he is being accused of committing have been public knowledge for years. Even so, the cable news industry dialed up a whole day of dispiriting, and often very dumb, wall-to-wall coverage.

This felt like a bad omen. Since Trump left office—and lost his Twitter account—the news media had blessedly stopped following his every move like a hungry terrier in search of his favorite chew toy. This required a quality for which cable news is not well known: discipline. The Trump years may have been very lucrative, both in terms of audience and revenue, for most media companies. But the post-Trump period was a much healthier news environment. And yet as soon as Trump did something (admittedly very) newsworthy, the wall-to-wall coverage resumed.

One can hardly expect news organizations to not have town halls with presidential frontrunners, Trump included. But it’s reasonable to worry that this event on CNN could easily slide back toward the bad old days of 2016, in which Trump’s lies were gleefully recirculated on cable news for days with little pushback. On Tuesday, the network’s political director David Chalian spoke to Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein to try to calm fears, somewhat successfully:

“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.

While mushy, this is basically right. Chalian is being somewhat political here and not saying what he really means. (What he means is that CNN’s journalists hold politicians accountable when they lie and that the fact that Donald Trump lies more than other candidates doesn’t change that basic fact.) Kaitlan Collins, who will be hosting the town hall, has largely done a fine job dealing with Trump in the past. More to the point, news outlets got better at covering Trump’s lies in real time, both in interviews and in news coverage, over the course of his presidency; there’s no real reason to expect significant backsliding there. Similarly, Trump benefited in 2016 from being treated as a sideshow: Networks didn’t feel the need to treat him aggressively because they didn’t expect him to win (and because he was, from a ratings perspective, a cash cow).

Still, the biggest reason to be hopeful about press coverage is that the incentives have changed. In 2016, Trump was a ratings bonanza: There was huge demand for Trump content and the networks were all engaged in a race to the bottom. The result was wall-to-wall coverage: the infamous shots, sometimes an hour long, of an empty podium, while talking heads waited to see what crazy shit Trump was about to say. Trump coverage made the ratings needle go up and networks were wildly irresponsible, gifting a presidential candidate acres of coverage not granted to his competitors.

It is not 2016 anymore. The same level of demand for all things Trump all the time simply doesn’t exist. While still popular with a significant segment of the Republican base, there is elsewhere a palpable sense of exhaustion with Trump—he simply doesn’t garner the same insane level of interest that he did seven years ago. Networks are also more sensitive to (again, deserved) criticism of the huge mistakes they made during the 2016 election cycle.

There is, however, no small amount of concern that the larger headwinds facing many outlets—declining audiences, for a variety of complex and not-so-complex reasons—could incentivize bad behavior again. But it’s not yet apparent that heavy doses of Trump will pay high enough dividends to offset the cost; the larger environment has shifted enough that it seems unlikely, though not impossible, that we’ll see a repeat of 2016’s clusterfuck. (Trump’s decision to sit out debates also helps this, for what it’s worth.) In this context, CNN hosting a town hall with Trump is fine—it may not be laudatory, but certainly not journalistic malpractice. Trump is the GOP frontrunner. He is also deranged. As long as CNN holds him to account, the network is simply doing its job. Should they fail, it will not pass without comment.