The fallout over the decision by CNN to place Donald Trump in a town hall session has continued to reverberate in media circles and among politicos. It seems fair to ask why a major news network felt it was first newsworthy to air such a broadcast, and secondly wise to place on the national airwaves a person who created and led the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol and continues to stoke and to spew dangerous lies about the 2020 election. Growing up in the era of news anchors such as Walter Cronkite and reporters such as David Brinkley I was aware when young the role of journalists in pursuing and broadcasting a story of national importance. But I also came to understand that standards meeting the needs of a democracy must also be observed and abided by.
I recall in an interview decades ago Cronkite was asked if he and his brethren in the television broadcast world along with the editors of the major newspapers in the nation set the list of events and topics that then became the top stories of the day. He said that the events of the day either in our nation or worldwide earned their own merit for attention by reporters and then the public. In other words, news is news. It happens and it is reported. The fact that CBS or The New York Times reports on a plane crash or a senator taking a bride does not make the story weightier or more important to people needing to know the safety concerns of airlines or the character of elected officials.
But what happens when a news operation creates an event and presents it as important knowing that in the mix of the broadcast, everything from ratings and ad buys to a tidal wave of competing frothy political sentiments and emotions will result from the self-generated mix? Additionally, the center of attention to the created event is known to lie and use media outlets without regard for reason or common sense. Even to the extreme of using media to further an insurrection and seditious intent. At that point, would any news operation wish to be a conveyance—a national loudspeaker, if you will—to such a person who has proven to act in violation of the national trust?
For the record, I did not watch the CNN spectacle, knowing that news broadcasts and the morning papers would allow me the background on what transpired. It was not shocking to learn that Trump made several outright lies and pressed down on them, allowing the viewing public another opportunity to be misled via the public airwaves. I am reminded that a denial never has the newsworthiness of an accusation. Trump is a master at the bald-faced lie, and news operations, by their very mission, should not allow themselves to be manipulated by such a demagogue. Worse, creating the event themselves!
The counterargument that has been expressed by those wishing to rationalize the CNN decision is that the viewing public is capable of watching such a manufactured broadcast and making up their own mind about what unfolded. That is poppycock, as there is an entire ‘news’ network catering to conservatives which amply proves daily—hourly, in fact—that when people are provided red meat and heavy rhetoric in lieu of facts there is nothing to be gained but a foundation of biased views.
Did CNN have a duty to be responsible to American democracy? Or should they be viewed as just another entity with a bottom line that needs to be fed and a bevy of personalities who need to be stroked? As a staunch supporter of reporters and journalists, I ask these questions in a serious way. I contend there must be a national hard-nosed dialogue on this matter. Reporters and news operations need to confront in their board meetings and editorial gatherings what responsibility they must shoulder so a demagogue cannot undermine our democracy due to some in the press willfully cooperating to the damage.
I am most confident about what side of the divide Walter Cronkite would ask us to find ourselves on with this matter. He would argue reporting and democracy are linked tightly together. The Fourth Estate is required so a strong democracy can continue. Autocrats and demagogues who threaten democracy will also lead to a weakened place for reporters to do their jobs.
The CNN town hall is worthy of a very robust national discourse. Both in the press and among the people.