Here’s What Should Have Happened on CNN Last Night

By Mark Jacob

Here’s what should have happened at Donald Trump’s CNN town hall Wednesday night:

When Trump said Wisconsin officials “virtually admitted that the [2020] election was rigged,” a loud buzzer should have sounded.

CNN host Kaitlin Collins should have said, “Sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Trump, but our panel of fact-checking experts has sounded its Truth Buzzer. The panel thinks your statement may not be 100 percent accurate. So let’s hit the pause button for a minute and listen to our panel’s deliberations.”

Then the panelif it existedshould have cited the verified facts and concluded that, no, the 2020 election was not rigged in Wisconsin or anywhere else.

And then the town hall should have resumed until the next Trump lie and the next Truth Buzzer and the next fact-check.

It would have been good televisionmuch better television than CNN delivered Wednesday night. As it was, CNN’s Collins was forced to challenge Trump’s lies all by herself. She pushed back in some cases, but the lies kept coming, ultimately exhausting and overwhelming her. Many blatant lies went unchallenged, including an accusation that Democrats want to “rip the baby out of the womb after the ninth month” and even kill them after they’re born. Trump also made the ridiculous claim that American military support for Ukraine means “we don’t have ammunition for ourselves.” No pushback from Collins on that one either. She was no match for the most energetic liar in American history.

CNN needed the Truth Buzzer. But cable news programmers wouldn’t like that innovation because any show with Trump would spend more time sorting out his lies than hearing him speak. If this era has shown us anything, it’s that it’s easier to lie than to fact-check lies. And professional frauds such as Trump and former aide Kellyanne Conway know that if you string your lies together in a flurry of falsehood, even the most hard-nosed journalist has trouble getting the discussion back to the first lie in the string.

As expected, the event was a big win for Trump and yet another defeat for real news. But that’s what CNN seems to be after these days, as long as it’s a player in the game. The very act of letting a known liar like Trump on the air normalizes him. And CNN went further early in the day when correspondent Kristen Holmes wrote a story for CNN’s website about how Trump’s appearance at the town hall was part of him “adopting a more traditional campaign.”

Sure, Kristen. “Traditional.” That’s the first word that comes to mind about a campaign by a twice-impeached ex-president who incited an assault on the Capitol, dined with a neo-Nazi, called for the “termination” of the Constitution, is under investigation for election fraud, is under investigation in the theft of classified documents, was indicted for business fraud, and was found by a jury to be a sexual predator.

Journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University said CNN has its own motive for normalizing Trump: “If Trump switches to a traditional campaign, that justifies traditional campaign coverage. See how that works?

So CNN and other risk-averse news outlets will act like everything is normal and the next presidential election is just another Sharks-vs.-Jets affair between two political parties of equal value or danger to our democracy. Politicians lie, we air their lies. At CNN, that’s our job.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.