With CNN's town hall, the media isn't doing itself any favors
CNN's decision to broadcast a town hall with former President Donald Trump was a disaster. It goes to show how the false balance fallacy is exacerbating the already rampant distrust in media.
It takes little more than the mention of a news organization’s name to rile someone up and engender an emotional, angry critique of its trustworthiness.
This past week, though, CNN managed to take it all into its own hands. That came Wednesday when former President Donald Trump held a town hall on the network laden with the usual lies, deceit and authoritarian remarks about elections.
“Unless you’re a very stupid person … most people understand what happened was a rigged election,” he said, referring to his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.
Trump checked all of the boxes during his hour-long event. That included defending participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection and falsely claiming he never knew E. Jean Carroll, who the day before won a civil suit finding him liable for sexual assault and defamation.
In the event's aftermath, some of CNN’s own employees said they were bewildered by the network’s decision, and that it “made it seem like CNN was endorsing that behavior,” POLITICO reported.
CNN CEO Chris Licht, in an internal call with employees Thursday morning, defended the decision to host the town hall and congratulated moderator Kaitlan Collins for “a masterful performance.”
“I am aware that there [have] been people with opinions slash backlash, and that is absolutely expected,” Licht said on the call, a recording of which was obtained by Playbook. “And I will say this as clearly as I possibly can: You do not have to like the former president’s answers, but you can’t say that we didn’t get them. Kaitlan pressed him again and again and made news — made a lot of news.
He added that “there is so much that we learned last night about what a second Trump presidency would look like, that that is incredibly important for the country to hear. That is our job, to get those answers and to hold them accountable in a way that no news organization has done in literally years.
“We all know covering Donald Trump is messy and tricky, and it will continue to be messy and tricky,” Licht said. “But it’s our job, and we’re going to do it fairly, toughly and aggressively, as Kaitlan did last night.”
Licht’s take on the matter was a complete miss, and it’s no surprise that the decision spurred resentment from within the organization.
After all, there are reporters at even the most biased networks who care about objectivity and the journalistic ethics they are expected to abide by.
So, why would CNN make this decision in the first place?
Robert Reich, a professor, author and political commentator who worked under presidents such as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, hit the nail on the head in an analysis posted to his Substack publication.
“Follow the money,” Reich wrote. “CNN’s new corporate overseer is Warner Bros. Discovery Inc, whose CEO is David Zaslav. Zaslav has been pushing Licht to reposition CNN to be a network preferred by ‘everybody … Republicans, Democrats.’
“But CNN was never going to be the network preferred by Republicans. Fox News has that sewn up. Besides, facts, data, and logic are no longer relevant to the Republican base.”
Reich argued that it’s imperative to cover the anti-democracy movement and the “big lie,” adding that it’d be a “dereliction of duty” for journalists to fail to do so.
This introduces what is known as the false balance fallacy, or “bothsidesism,” which has been plaguing news organizations since the concept of ethics in reporting came into importance.
By attempting to provide different perspectives on even the most abhorrent policies and politics, the organizations are essentially platforming hatred, bigotry and misinformation in an attempt to not seem biased.
I agree with Reich; while it may be important to report on both sides of an issue, it’s not expressing inherent bias or necessarily taking a side to simply highlight the lunacy of groups such as the far right.
In fact, it’s an obligation.
CNN, on the other hand, did nothing but give a platform to an oligarch and his loyal following. It did nothing to bring balance to the network’s coverage.
At its best, journalism reports on both sides — to an extent.
When candidates run for office, it’s important to do a deep dive into their past, their credentials and their belief system. That all should be reported on.
Candidates will hold town halls to be able to pitch their personalities and policy proposals in a more intimate manner. That should all be reported on.
But the extent to which newspapers and networks get involved in all of this is where there is a fine line.
For example, there’s nothing wrong with a newspaper or network hosting a debate with opposing candidates, as long there are clear rules, and moderators hold them to those rules — which happens less than one may think.
However, it is not a publication’s job to allow one single candidate to use the organization’s platform as a tool to reach their readership or viewership.
Marketing is easy as it is as a high-profile politician. They don’t need any crutches, and news organizations should play as little of a role as possible in what is ostensibly free campaigning.
Oh, but CNN had Jake Tapper fact-check Trump?
Well, what credit is there to give when someone lights the fire and then attempts to extinguish it?
After all of this, a decline in the public’s trust in news is unsurprising.
In October, Gallup released a poll showing that only 34% of Americans had a "great deal" or "fair amount" of confidence in media, continuing the trend of a general distrust in news sources.
The lowest level of trust polled by Gallot since it began tracking the topic in 1972 came during the 2016 presidential election cycle when 32% of Americans responded they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence.
“Meanwhile, 28% of U.S. adults say they do not have very much confidence and 38% have none at all in newspapers, TV and radio,” the poll stated. “Notably, this is the first time that the percentage of Americans with no trust at all in the media is higher than the percentage with a great deal or a fair amount combined.”
By breaking everything down into partisan terms, the discrepancies become even more pronounced.
For example, the poll found 70% of Democrats, 14% of Republicans and 27% of Independents trust the country’s media organizations.
Take what you will from that information.
With the numbers remaining at historic lows, a perception of media bias is often cited as a reason for distrusting news sources, and organizations vary tremendously in regard to which direction they skew.
It’s a shock to no one that all news organizations demonstrate some sort of bias to some extent; for any newspaper or broadcaster to claim otherwise is ridiculous.
Even when a journalist tries their best, they have preconceived notions about the topics at hand and hold their own beliefs that at some level dictate how they frame a story and who they speak to.
Even the tone of their voice or transitions used in their articles can serve as a clear signal of how they feel about the subject of their story.
Generally speaking, sources such as AllSides and Ad Fontes Media, both of which rank news sources by where their biases fall on the political spectrum, are an acceptable method of determining where an organization may lie.
However, those examining the provided charts should exercise caution. That’s because even those who are tasked with rating the biases of news sources are doing so by using their own subjective judgment of the content.
At the end of the day, the reader has to use as much judgment in choosing news sources as they would hope a reporter or editor would use before publishing their content.
Having an opinion based on any given subject is a part of the human condition. It is also a facet of that condition that even given an objective truth, how one persons views it from a moral or logical standpoint will differ from another.
Having opinions is not unnatural or a bad thing. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
But the media plays a unique role in relaying the information in a way that allows listeners and readers to absorb facts and form their opinions upon what they learn on a daily basis.
Many journalists, including myself, have written for newspapers that publish editorials that they vehemently disagree with. And just because they work where they do shouldn’t take away from the fact that the field of journalism is imperative to democracy — and many dedicate their lives to upholding it.
As for newspapers and networks who, like myself, have received nasty backlash as a result of their coverage?
Just take a step back and do some reflection. If you want to maintain whatever integrity is left in the eyes of the public, try to be more careful with how you cover local and national affairs.
Take into consideration whether you’re truly being fair by highlighting both sides or simply platforming falsehoods and bigotry.
The world’s a better place if people are informed. But only if they’re informed with accurate information and exposed to a clear sense of who people are.