The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Like most Americans I did not watch Donald Trump’s Town Hall on CNN last week, but, like many Americans, I saw some of the videos and read some of the commentaries in the following days, including Anderson Cooper’s absurd rationalizing of CNN’s decision to give Trump a platform to spew his fantasies, lies, and hate.
The Town Hall was, among other things, a charade. It was highly curated with a very friendly crowd and a host who was either unwilling or unable to stand up to Trump. Accordingly, the specifics of what Trump said are not important, because the fact that the event occurred is a warning sign about how the media will treat Trump during the 2024 campaign. That made the event a victory for Trump.
The Town Hall was an early sign that CNN will not be able to resist the newest iteration of the Trump show because of the lure of what Trump can do for their ratings is too tempting. In other words, all signals are pointing to CNN once again treating Trump like a normal candidate who happens to be running away with his party’s presidential nomination.
Trump is indeed the heavy favorite to be the GOP nominee in 2024, but to make decisions about covering Trump based only on that is to ignore a much bigger and uglier reality. Trump was deeply complicit in an attempt to destabilize the US by disrupting a free and fair election, has made no effort to conceal his fascistic agenda should he win the election, has recently been found in court to be a sexual assaulter, and has consistently embraced bigotry of all kinds. Despite all that, CNN is treating him like he is Mitt Romney in 2012.
Every time a media organization amplifies Trump’s voice and allows him to dominate the conversation, they contribute to the chipping away of American democracy. If Trump is given a platform on CNN or a comparable media outlet, it should be to interrogate him about his criminality, support for insurrection, and efforts to disrupt American democracy, not to take softball questions from friendly voters.
Like most major networks and news platforms, CNN knows how to cover a normal presidential election because there is a familiar pace and recognizable landmarks. The election begins 22 months or so before polls close as candidates skirmish for positions in one or both parties. Yet to come are the primary debates, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Then, a winnowing of the field of potential nominees, followed by more primaries, a Super Tuesday, and the emergence of nominees. From there, there will be new speculation about vice-presidential selections, conventions, general election campaigns, debates, clever ads and then the election. Every presidential from 1976 through 2012 followed this pattern with some minor variations, but we have not had a normal presidential election in either of the last two cycles, land 2024 is not looking like one either.
The coming 2024 election will be the third that does not follow this old pattern. It is understandable, perhaps, that organizations like CNN did not react quickly enough in 2016, but by now they should have recognized the new reality that recent American presidential elections have pitted a flawed Democratic candidate against Donald Trump who seeks to destroy American democracy. That is the big story of this election, just as it was in the two previous presidential elections. To ignore that is media malpractice.
American political habits and traditions are deeply engrained in the media, political elite, and in the minds of voters, particularly older voters. This is why so many Americans, even those who vehemently dislike Trump, have such a difficult time processing the extent to which the party he has taken over threatens American democracy. Accordingly, actions like CNN’s decision to treat Trump like an ordinary candidate are very impactful because they further a narrative that many, including that of some of Trump’s opponents, desperately want to believe. But that narrative is simply no longer true.
The media will be tested repeatedly in the next 18 months as they seek to balance the need to cover the election with the necessity to remain focused on the major stories of democratic rollback and the danger a Republican victory represents. Some of this is easy. Horserace coverage of minor Republican candidates who have little chance of winning, even if they happen to be the former vice-president of the United States, is unhelpful. It is similarly misleading to suggest the Republican primary is more competitive than it is, or that Trump is the only GOP candidate who is a danger to American democracy. Ron DeSantis, who is still second to Trump in most polls, may be a more competent and less colourful than Trump but has an equally, perhaps even more, authoritarian vision for the country.
On balance, the media has a difficult needle to thread. They cannot ignore Trump entirely. Voters have the right to know about the background, positions, and plans of major candidates. Similarly, voters have the same right to know about the scandals, missteps, health issues, and other foibles of Joe Biden, even if his election is essential for the preservation of American democracy. CNN and other major media outlets must provide that information to voters, but that can be done without wilfully downplaying the reality of who Donald Trump is and what he and his party represent.