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CNN’s announcement of Donald Trump’s Wednesday town hall, which will broadcast live as the former president takes questions from CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins alongside undecided New Hampshire Republican presidential primary voters, came as a shock to many amid the cable news network’s strained relationship with Trump — including the former President himself.
In typical Trump fashion, the 2024 Republican presidential candidate scoffed at his upcoming appearance, writing on Truth Social Tuesday that the network was “rightfully desperate to get those fantastic (TRUMP!) ratings once again,” and adding that CNN “made [him] a deal [he] couldn’t refuse.”
Ratings-wise, Trump isn’t wrong. The last time Trump appeared on CNN for a town hall, which was April 12, 2016, the program averaged 2.2 million total viewers, marking a 125% increase in viewership as compared to time period norms at the time.
While the town hall will inevitably boost Wednesday’s primetime ratings for CNN, Claire Potter, professor of history at The New School for Social Research, noted that one skyrocketing night of ratings is “immaterial in the trajectory of a news channel, particularly one that’s in transformation, as CNN is.”
Instead, the town hall might be CNN’s first effort to assuage right-leaning viewers ahead of 2024 election coverage, killing two birds with one stone as CNN returns to its longstanding town hall tradition for the candidate, while also indicating a show of good faith to conservative viewers who might have swapped CNN for solely Fox News.
“CNN has a ratings problem right now that seems to be, among other things, having relatively low viewership and trust among conservative voters, so this might be an opportunity that their leadership seems to be pursuing, to make their brand more centrist again, after it drift[ed] left pretty substantially,” UCLA media studies professor Tim Groeling told TheWrap. “Having Trump on and potentially appearing to treat him fairly, might actually be a cheap way for them to build more credibility, again, with a segment of the audience that they basically had ceded to Fox [News].”
With CNN CEO Chris Licht’s tenure hitting just over a year following the Warner Bros. Discovery merger, CNN’s total day and primetime ratings for the month of April 2023 are down double digits both in terms of total viewers and viewers in the key cable demographic among adults 25-54 when compared to April 2022, just before Licht took over the network.
In April 2023, CNN averaged 533,000 average total viewers — down 16% from April 2022’s average total viewership of 636,000 — and 106,000 viewers in the key 25-54-year-old demographic — down 21% from the 143,000 demo viewers the network averaged in April 2022, according to Nielsen’s total day figures. In primetime, the network averaged 650,000 total viewers — down 13% compared from the 747,000 total viewers averaged in April 2022 — and CNN brought in 153,000 viewers in the demo — down 19% compared to the 189,000 demo viewers the networked averaged at the same time last year.
While Licht has previously towed a cautious line regarding coverage on Trump — both making efforts to avoid guests who push disinformation while also tamping down rampant criticism regarding the former president — media experts and watchdogs worry the live town hall might open the flood gates to even more disinformation.
“When I look evidence to say that CNN is prepared for this, journalistically, I’m a little concerned, both in terms of their ground rules for how the moderator is going to interrupt [Trump and] the fact that the moderator used to work at The Daily Caller,” Media Matters news director John Whitehouse told TheWrap, referring to Collins’ previous employment at the right-wing news website founded by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Whitehouse also noted that CNN has released “vanishingly little” about protocols for the live event, including how the cable news network might address the myriad of Trump-related issues that might be addressed, including false claims about the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 riots, as well as Tuesday’s verdict that found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll.
“The way to build trust and build an audience, if they want to do that, is to be open and honest about how they’re doing and how they’re processing this journalistically,” Whitehouse continued. “It’s up to CNN to to show that this has meaning and it’s being driven, journalistically in order to inform the audience and not to just appeal to Trump supporters to come back to CNN in a moment where Fox News is weak.”
Even with the most experienced moderator, the live aspect of the town hall raises alarm bells for some given the heavy lift of fact-checking the former president, who “often spews out a barrage of lies at the same time, many of which don’t even go together and make sense,” according to Potter.
When asked for comment for this story and for CNN’s protocols for fact-checking Trump during the live event, a network spokesperson told TheWrap, “President Trump is the Republican frontrunner, and our job despite his unique circumstances is to do what we do best. Ask tough questions, follow up and hold him accountable to give voters the information they need to sort through their choices. That is our role and our responsibility.”
While Groeling understands that a group of fact-checkers will speak to Collins in an earpiece, which indicates CNN is taking “part of their responsibility in the venue,” he notes the difficulty of fact-checking a live event in real time.
“Live events almost always benefit the candidate, not the journalist,” Groeling told TheWrap, adding a majority of candidates prefer live events over selectively edited interviews as it increases their control over the event with the ability to filibuster or to push back with more freedom.
As the avenue of a live town hall might stir up more trouble than a debate or than an edited interview which would be fact-checked simultaneous as it aired, Whitehouse notes that “there’s a lot of ways to do this, where the journalism is the point.”
“They’re not doing this because the journalism is the point — they’re doing this because Trump is the point,” Whitehouse said. “That’s what worries us.”
Potter, on the other hand, noted that the town hall might be the network’s first stab at draining partisanship out of coverage for a major presidential election as Trump’s candidacy continues to grow as a realistic outcome.
“The paradox that all news organizations have been caught in really, except for the ones on the far right… is how do you not cover somebody who is the leading candidate for president in that party?” Potter posed. “I think what CNN is trying to do… is to try to get back to a news model, where journalists job is to cover the news, not make the news, not tell a new story about the news, not work on behalf of a particular point of view, but report the news.”
CNN’s town hall with Trump airs live at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Wednesday from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.