CNN CEO Chris Licht says he is proud of the Wednesday night town hall with Donald Trump, where the former president got to spew forth his usual toxic mixture of misogyny and conspiracy theories. Along with repeated lies that the 2020 election was stolen, Trump took the opportunity to insult E. Jean Carroll (recently awarded $5 million in a lawsuit where the jury found Trump had defamed and sexually assaulted her). Trump referred to Carroll as a “wack job” and also went after his CNN interviewer Kaitlan Collins as a “nasty person.” (“Nasty” being a slur Trump reserves for women who defy him).
Licht acknowledged that “there’s been backlash” to the town hall, but insisted the event made for good journalism. According to a Vanity Fair report, criticism of the town hall came from inside CNN itself, with many staffers upset that the network was giving Trump free advertising in an event so heavily packed with Trump supporters that it amounted to a campaign rally. Responding to this internal backbiting, Licht praised Collins’s “masterful performance last night.” According to Licht, “Kaitlan pressed [Trump] again and again and made news. Made a LOT of news,” which “is our job.” The idea that it is CNN’s job to make news (rather than report it) and his use of the word “performance” indicate Licht’s fundamental view that news is entertainment.
Licht’s boosterism is not just self-serving; it’s also patently false. In reality, Collins repeatedly allowed Trump to steamroll over her, leaving countless lies unanswered (as even CNN host Jake Tapper acknowledged when he said, “We don’t have enough time to fact-check every lie [Trump] told.”)
The town hall format, before an audience filled to the rafters with Trump-loving MAGA Republicans, would have defeated the best of journalists—and Collins is far below the best. In fact, she’s a product of the right herself, an alumna of The Daily Caller—a publication founded by Tucker Carlson. As Parker Molloy noted on her substack The Present Age, while writing for The Daily Caller Collins “would regularly churn out articles mocking Syrian refugees, victims of torture, asking whether the Obama daughters were wearing skirts that were too short, and giving people DIY instructions on how to ‘glare’ just like Michelle Obama.” Licht is reportedly grooming Collins to be an on-air conservative host in the crucial 9 pm slot—a move that seems designed to win over Fox News viewers who distrust CNN for its alleged liberal bias.
It’s easy to take an ideological view of the town hall controversy and see it as part of Licht’s program to move CNN to the right (which Licht himself would present as a move to the center). By this argument, Licht is transforming CNN and moving it away from the Trump-skepticism of his putatively more liberal predecessor Jeff Zucker, CNN president from 2013 to 2022.
The problem with this view is that there is a long continuity in CNN’s relationship with Trump that goes back much further than the reigns of Zucker and Licht. In truth, CNN and Trump are both products of the same cable TV tabloid culture that emerged in the 1980s. In reality, Trump and the network have a deeply synergistic relationship.
Trump and CNN might occasionally have their public spats, with the former president denouncing the network as “fake news” and CNN hosts dutifully (if inadequately) cataloging Trump’s lies. But these fights are no more real than the kayfabe conflicts of professional wrestlers, whose stock in trade is exchanging insults and seemingly painful blows—all in the service of entertainment and ratings.
CNN opened up shop in 1980, and as early as 1987 the network’s most highly rated host, softball interviewer Larry King, was already touting Trump as a potential presidential candidate.
A 2017 New York Times Magazine profile of Zucker, written by Jonathan Mahler, focused on his “strange symbiosis” with Trump. Long before Trump ran for president, the two men helped each other. In 2004, it was Zucker who as president of NBC Entertainment remade Trump—then a flailing real estate developer—as the star of the reality show The Apprentice. It was a mutually profitable relationship.
“Before long, Zucker was introducing Trump to advertisers as the man who saved NBC,” Mahler reports.
But Zucker saved Trump, too. He had been through four bankruptcies at this point, with a fifth and sixth around the corner. And yet, in just a few years’ time, Trump would have his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and would be dreaming of leveraging his new celebrity into a bid for the White House.
When Zucker became head of CNN in 2013, the relationship with Trump continued in an informal but significant way. As Mahler reports,
CNN was the first major news organization to give Trump’s campaign prolonged and sustained attention. He was a regular guest in the network’s studios from the earliest days of the Republican primaries, often at Zucker’s suggestion. (For a while, according to the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, Trump referred to Zucker as his “personal booker.”) When Trump preferred not to appear in person, he frequently called in. Nor did CNN ever miss an opportunity to broadcast a Trump rally or speech, building the suspense with live footage of an empty lectern and breathless chyrons: “DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE.” Kalev Leetaru, a data scientist, using information obtained from the TV News Archive, calculated that CNN mentioned Trump’s name nearly eight times more frequently than that of the second-place finisher, Ted Cruz, during the primaries.
Again, both parties reaped huge benefits from the relationship. Trump won the Republican nomination and the presidency while CNN saw its ratings go through the roof. Aside from having Trump on constantly, Zucker actively courted the whole grotesque zoo of Trump apologists and cronies such as Corey Lewandowski and Jeffrey Lord to keep the sparks flying and the viewers glued.
During the Republican convention in July 2016, Lord went on-air to convey to CNN host Anderson Cooper a personal message he had just received in a phone call from Trump: “He has a message for you, Anderson: He is not pleased. He thinks that we’re not accurately representing this convention. He specifically said to say that your ratings, our ratings at CNN here, are up because of his presence in this convention.”
In this “message” from Trump we can see the two sides of his relationship with CNN. On the one hand: a superficial fight between foes. But beneath that is the underlying reality: Both sides benefit handsomely from the ratings bonanza.
Speaking on RT in 2018, Larry King, Trump’s oldest booster on CNN, had a pang of late-life remorse. “CNN stopped doing news a long time ago.” said King. “They do Trump. When CNN started covering Trump—they were the first—they covered every speech he made, and then they made Trump the story.”
King died in 2021, but the truth of his analysis is likely to stand for a long time. CNN is still making Trump the story—because there’s still profit in doing so.
The one glimmer of hope in this dismal tale is that viewers might actually be losing their appetite for Trump.
As former CNN correspondent Brian Stelter reports, “CNN’s town hall with Donald Trump averaged 3.1 million total viewers. The event outrated Fox and MSNBC, as expected, but these are not 2015/16 level numbers for Trump—not even close.” CNN and Trump constitute a two-headed monster that threatens American democracy. One way to fight them both is just to turn off the TV.