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Let Them Fight: CNN CEO Chris Licht Must Once Again Defend the Network for Trump Town Hall

AP Photo/Ron Harris

The town hall that CNN did with former and potentially future President Donald Trump took place weeks ago now, and yet it's still being lamented as members of the mainstream media and even CNN's own anchors engage in a freak out. Trump's appearance allowed the network to have the most watched program for the night that it aired, with over 3 million viewers. Trump has fundraised off of it and continues to speak about it. Even on Wednesday, Trump was still issuing statements sharing articles about the town hall, including from the American Spectator and Breitbart, with the latter detailing how "CNN’s Donald Trump Town Hall Yields Ratings 5x Higher than Typical Night." As Leah covered last week, the network has encountered a "crisis" when it comes to the primetime drop in ratings since then. 

When it comes to the freak-out from the network's own, Jake Tapper was brought to tears. Anderson Cooper began his program the following night by actually telling viewers you have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again."

CEO Chris Licht has defended the town hall, and he's done so from the start, arguing that "America was served very well by what we did [that] night." Matt also covered not long after the town hall how Licht had to summon the network's Oliver Darcy and his editor to discuss, alongside executives, how he had been "too emotional," and that the network's new mission was to be objective and "dispassionate" about reporting. 

It has since got wilder, though. Last week, Matt also covered how Darcy reported on CNN's Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour's complaints about the town hall while giving the commencement speech at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was also accepting an award. She too had met with Licht. 

As Darcy had reported:

While accepting the prestigious Columbia Journalism Award and serving as the school's 2023 commencement speaker, Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday became the first network anchor to publicly voice dissent with management over the town hall, which has spawned a storm of fierce backlash. 

Amanpour, CNN's chief international anchor, disclosed that she had met with CNN boss Chris Licht this week and that the two "had a very robust exchange of views" about the matter. She said that Licht "welcomed that exchange of views," but stood by his decision to hold the town hall. Licht told staffers the morning after the event that he believed it was worthwhile because it woke people up to the stakes of the 2024 election. 

After hearing out Licht, Amanpour told the Columbia Journalism School graduates that she had not been moved. 

"I still respectfully disagree with allowing Donald Trump to appear in that particular format," the veteran anchor said, contending that the American people had demonstrated with their votes in the last three elections that they are well aware of his behavior. 

...

During the address, Amanpour acknowledged that the press still has not quite figured out how to grapple with Trump, who has abused media platforms to spread dangerous disinformation far and wide, often overwhelming fact-checkers who have struggled to keep up with his rapid-fire stream of lies and falsehoods. 

"Maybe we should revert back to the newspaper editors and TV chiefs of the 1950s, who in the end refused to allow McCarthyism onto their pages," Amanpour suggested. "Unless his foul lies, his witch hunts and his rants reached the basic evidence level required in a court of law. His influence gradually decreased with all but his fervent colleagues and cults."   

"So maybe less is more," she suggested. "Maybe live is not always right." 

...

Amanpour defended CNN as an institution and implored people to give the news organization another chance, even as she acknowledged it "doesn't mean we always get everything right." 

"I can only hope that your trust in us might have been shaken, but not shattered," she said. "That you believe we can survive and rebuild that trust." 

Both Amanpour and Cooper had called on people to still watch CNN. "But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite. If lies are allowed to go unchecked as imperfect as our ability to check them is on a stage in real-time, those lies continue, and those lies spread," Cooper also said during the segment mentioned above. 

It's all really quite pathetic. Amanpour's remarks pleased at last one person, though. Jennifer Rubin, formally a conservative who now rants and raves in columns for The Washington Post as well as in her role as an MSNBC contributor, giddily took notice. 

In her column for Tuesday morning, Rubin wrote that "CNN needs a new chief. Here’s the ideal candidate," with Amanpour supposedly being that "ideal candidate."

Rubin begins her piece by reminding us right away how bonkers she is:

The calamitous and widely panned CNN town hall with disgraced former president Donald Trump personified much of what is wrong with the mainstream media: the insatiable desire for sensationalism, the dereliction of duty to pursue the truth, infuriating passivity, and the normalization of lying and political extremism. (Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

Nearly as bad: the expected corporate defensiveness that followed, including CNN chief Chris Licht’s chewing out of media reporter Oliver Darcy for exhibiting the temerity to do his job (i.e. media criticism) in discussing his employer’s errors in providing an uncontrolled forum for Trump’s assault on reality.

Licht’s alleged encouragement of Trump to “have fun” and his refusal to acknowledge the fundamental error in presenting Trump in this fashion should disqualify him from management of a major news outlet. Instead of Licht, the cable news network that created the medium of cable news might consider putting a real journalist at the top of the organization. I’ve got just the person.

Rubin proceeds to speak of Amanpour and her publicly speaking out against her employer in glowing terms, such as how she provided "a master class in controlled and graceful yet searing criticism of her employer."

In addition to quoting and summarizing Amanpour’s speech, she makes truly hilarious points about journalists and the media too, made all the more amusing based upon how she actually is taking herself seriously. Emphasis is original:

As someone frustrated with the mainstream media’s lack of candor about Trump, its incessant effort to normalize MAGA radicals and its refusal to report what is so readily apparent (e.g., Trump’s irrational ramblings), I thought this distillation of what the media should be doing was a bracing gust of fresh air. And that got me thinking: Why isn’t someone who was there at CNN’s founding and who understands the true mission of journalism running the show  literally?

Well, Amanpour might not want that thankless job. Who could blame her if she preferred covering wars and grilling foreign leaders over making personnel decisions and dealing with ad revenue? But certainly she — or someone equally well-versed in the purpose and value of journalism, a real reporter — should be at the top of an organization dedicated to journalism.

If you aren’t a practitioner of real journalism, you might wind up hiring former aides of an administration that engaged in nonstop lying and treating MAGA Republicans with kid gloves so as not to lose access. You find yourself filling hour after hour with panelists regurgitating the news someone else broke rather than bringing new information to your audience. In other words, you wind up with CNN of 2023, a journalistic laughingstock and a ratings loser.

If not Amanpour, CNN — and all news outlets — should be run by a player-turned-coach, someone who played the “game” at a high level and understands truth is the objective of journalism, first and foremost, as Amanpour put it. If we want better journalism, we need respected journalists to run important outlets. I’d pick Amanpour — but then that’s me.

Amanpour herself admits to being an activist, though. "Journalists like Amanpour don't think it's their job to 'speak truth to power.' It's their job to 'speak truth' against the evil Republicans. She openly said her job was 'activism' and 'when we do it well, we can be a force for change and improvement in the world.' She said the job was 'advancing human rights and democracy and defending both,'" Tim Graham highlighted in a column not long after her commencement speech.

Matt Dornic, CNN's head of strategic communications tweeted out a statement in reply to Rubin sharing her column. 

"You are entitled to your opinion but it is reckless and offensive to label the thousands of CNN employees who work tirelessly around the world as a 'laughingstock' because you disagree with the merits of a single event or a few high-profile decisions made by leadership. That's not championing journalism. It's shameful," Dornic wrote in his statement. 

He had been particularly spicy even earlier on in the statement. "And with all due respect, someone paid by MSNBC ought not to throw stones about panelists and the hiring of former WH aides," Dornic also said. 

Both Fox News and Mediaite covered the feud, to which Rubin responded by gleefully tweeting out the latter's coverage. also writing "Fabulous!!!" Another criticizes the PR tactics involved.

Former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC), who is also running for president, will have her own CNN town hall on June 4, moderated by Tapper. It's all part of a town hall series that CNN is doing so that voters can interact with and hear from presidential candidates, something a legitimate news network is supposed to want to do.


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