Chris Licht of CNN Defends Decision to Host Trump Town Hall

The chairman of CNN, Chris Licht, issued a robust defense on Thursday of his decision to broadcast a live town hall with former President Donald J. Trump, an unruly and at times bewildering event that has prompted criticism inside and outside of the network.

On a network-wide editorial call, Mr. Licht congratulated the moderator, Kaitlan Collins, on “a masterful performance” before acknowledging the public backlash. “We all know covering Donald Trump is messy and tricky, and it will continue to be messy and tricky, but it’s our job,” Mr. Licht said, according to a recording of the call obtained by The New York Times.

“I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night,” Mr. Licht added. “People woke up, and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before. And if someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, it damn well should be on CNN.”

The town hall, which aired in prime-time on Wednesday, featured Mr. Trump deploying a fusillade of falsehoods, sometimes too quickly for the moderator to intercept. It was a preview of what American journalism can expect from a 2024 campaign with the former president, who despite his ubiquity in political life has rarely appeared on mainstream TV outside of Fox News since leaving office.

If the 2016 campaign showed that many Americans could not agree on common facts, the Babel-like nature of Wednesday’s New Hampshire town hall suggested that voters now occupied wholly different universes. Mr. Trump repeated a web of conspiracies about a stolen election and the “beautiful day” of the Capitol riot, language that was likely to befuddle half the viewing audience and resonate as gospel with the rest.

“The election was not rigged, Mr. President,” Ms. Collins said at one point. “You cannot keep saying that all night long.” (He kept saying it.)

The live audience, a group of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters, often cheered him on, even when he derided Ms. Collins as a “nasty person.”

“While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story,” Mr. Licht said on Thursday, “because the people in that audience represent a large swath of America. And the mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist. Just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists.”

Critics said it was reckless for the network to provide a live forum to Mr. Trump, given his track record of spreading disinformation. Even the network’s own commentators appeared taken aback by what had transpired on its airwaves. “We don’t have enough time to fact check every lie he told,” Jake Tapper told viewers on Wednesday night.

The town hall was watched by 3.3 million people, according to Nielsen, a significant increase from CNN’s typical audience on an average weeknight at 8 p.m. But the Trump town hall fell short of the average viewership for Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, which was seen by an average of 3.2 million people in the first three months of the year.

Mr. Licht, who took over CNN last year after the network was acquired by Warner Bros. Discovery, has had a rocky tenure, and some journalists there have bristled at his public comments that the network had veered too far into an anti-Trump stance when Mr. Trump was in the White House. Mr. Licht has said CNN must appeal to more centrists and conservative voters, a strategy that has support from his corporate superiors.

There were signs on Thursday that frustration inside CNN about the town hall was bubbling up. The network’s own media newsletter, “Reliable Sources,” published a tough assessment after the event, noting, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.”

The newsletter cited several critical posts on social media about the forum, including some people who faulted the network for choosing a town hall-style format where voters were free to cheer Mr. Trump and jeer Ms. Collins, the moderator.

CNN said it selected the audience members in the same manner as it had for past candidate forums. A network team traveled to New Hampshire and coordinated with community groups, faith-based organizations, local Republican officials and the student government at Saint Anselm College, which hosted the event.

CNN said the aim was to fill the auditorium with citizens representing a range of conservative views, but the network declined to identify specific groups that were consulted, saying it did not want activists trying to game the system at future events.

In keeping with past network practice, the Trump campaign was provided invitations for about 20 guests to attend the town hall, although these guests were not allowed to ask questions of the candidate. Officials at Saint Anselm College were allowed to invite about 70 people. The total audience was 300 to 350 people.

In the days leading up to the town hall, Ms. Collins prepared with the team in New Hampshire extensively, according to a person familiar with the matter, going over potential falsehoods Mr. Trump might utter onstage. Mr. Licht gave feedback, and Mr. Trump was played in mock debates by Mark Preston, CNN’s vice president of political and special events programming,

Mr. Licht’s decision to select Ms. Collins for the high-profile assignment underscored her rising prominence as an on-air anchor at CNN. The network is finalizing a multiyear contract with Ms. Collins that will make her the anchor of CNN’s currently vacant 9 p.m. hour, according to three people with knowledge of talks. That hour is a crucial time slot for advertisers, and Ms. Collins’s recent tryout in that time-slot last month drew favorable ratings.

Puck earlier reported that Ms. Collins was nearing a deal with CNN.

Ms. Collins’s deal, combined with Don Lemon’s recent ouster from CNN, means that the network will have to retool its morning show. The network is looking for new co-hosts to pair with Poppy Harlow, Ms. Collins’s co-anchor on “CNN This Morning.”

Some CNN critics had asserted that the network cut away early from the Trump event, which ended around 9:10 p.m. In fact, the event was always intended to last an hour or so, with a panel of analysts ready in a studio to take over coverage at the start of the 9 p.m. hour.

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