Criticized for handing Donald Trump a live prime-time platform, CNN faced a divisive response to an occasionally bewildering broadcast.
David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN’s parent company, recently defended the network’s decision to host a live town hall with former President Donald J. Trump, calling the event “important for America.”
So it proved to be, but perhaps not for the reasons Mr. Zaslav intended.
In a bracing and at times bewildering broadcast on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump — appearing on CNN for the first time since 2016 — unleashed a fusillade of falsehoods, sometimes too quickly for his interlocutor, the anchor Kaitlan Collins, to intervene.
Again and again, Mr. Trump falsely claimed that the 2020 election was rigged. He called E. Jean Carroll a “wack job” and attacked her in misogynist terms. He defended the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters.
Ms. Collins, composed in the face of Mr. Trump’s turbulence, interrupted, interceded, corrected and called out the former president on his lies. He often responded by talking right over her. When Mr. Trump finally lost patience and derided Ms. Collins as a “nasty person,” some in the live audience applauded.
This was a preview of what American journalism can expect from a 2024 campaign featuring Mr. Trump, 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 occupy 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.)
Ms. Collins, a rising star at CNN who is being considered for a prominent 9 p.m. slot at the network, was an able choice as moderator. She has covered Mr. Trump for years, knows his idiosyncrasies, and was not intimidated when Mr. Trump tried to bully her.
Even Mr. Trump looked stumped when Ms. Collins asked, succinctly, “Do you want Ukraine to win this war?” (He would not give a straight answer.) She relentlessly pressed him on whether he would sign a federal ban on abortion, pointing out, “You did not say yes or no.” (Again, Mr. Trump would not say.)
Still, Ms. Collins could do only so much as the sole journalist on the stage. It quickly became apparent that the crowd of Republican and Republican-leaning independents was deeply skeptical of her efforts to rein in Mr. Trump. The town hall format, where many cheers could be heard as the former president taunted Ms. Collins, made it all the more difficult for her to perform her assignment. (CNN said it assembled the audience in consultation with community groups, faith-based organizations, local Republicans and the Saint Anselm College student government.)
When the broadcast ended — after Mr. Trump briefly shook Ms. Collins’s hand and uttered, “Good job” — the cameras cut to a panel of unusually subdued CNN analysts.
“We don’t have enough time to fact check every lie he told,” said the anchor Jake Tapper. Some CNN critics had made the same point before Wednesday’s broadcast, and again after it: that it was reckless to allow Mr. Trump to speak live to millions of people in prime-time.
Mr. Trump’s inclination to spread falsehoods is well-established. Even Fox News, which has provided the former president friendly forums with conservative stars like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, has not taken Mr. Trump live for many months.
He is also the de facto leader of the Republican Party, meaning his remarks are inherently newsworthy to voters on the cusp of a new presidential campaign. CNN said in a statement late Wednesday that its town hall reflected the network’s “role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”
Producers and journalists at the other major television networks watched CNN on Wednesday with curiosity, skepticism, and maybe a bit of trepidation.
If Mr. Trump remains the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, he will be appearing on their airwaves soon enough.