CNN’s Donald Trump town hall is the highest-profile recent example of anti-woke journalism hampering our ability to responsibly cover the 2024 election cycle or a host of “culture war” issues. Top news executives, editors, and commentators have become so focused on countering “wokeism” in the industry, they’ve forgotten what we learned since Trump came down his golden escalator in 2015 calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. We should not jettison traditional journalistic standards built upon fact-based reporting, which include portraying all relevant voices fairly and accurately, that have served us well. But neither should we render long-held conventions — like the very subjective concept of objectivity — sacrosanct even as they undermine our goal to get as close to truth as possible and report it as honestly as we can.
While they acknowledge the threat of misinformation and the kind of repeated lying for which Trump is well known, news executives seem more concerned with corralling journalists within their ranks who won’t simply fall in line. They are horrified by what we all witnessed on Jan. 6, 2021, but get more animated when a fellow journalist questions “objectivity.” They’ve become concerned with protecting tradition, and they are operating from a place of distorted reality, positing that journalists who disagree with them are trying to tear down standards.
A case in point is what CNN Chairman Chris Licht said during a recent network-wide editorial call. According to an account in The New York Times, Licht said: “While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story, 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.” He also reportedly proclaimed that the town hall “made news,” such as when Trump declared he’d have the Russian invasion of Ukraine resolved within 24 hours if he’s re-elected.
That wasn’t a news-oriented town hall. The concept itself was the problem, not production particulars. It was a political rally for a twice-impeached former president who inspired a violent insurrection. CNN gave a well-known liar primetime air to repeatedly lie and stacked the studio with an audience allowed to applaud him. It amounted to an in-kind donation to Trump’s campaign and a repeat of cable networks’ decisions to point cameras at an empty podium instead of broadcasting a speech during which Hillary Clinton discussed proposals to raise incomes for working families. It had strong echoes of decisions made during the 2016 presidential election cycle that provided Trump with $4.6 billion of free media.
No responsible media outlet should broadcast Trump live, except in extreme circumstances. He has forfeited the right. He easily lies through fact-checks, just as he did when moderator Kaitlan Collins tried to rein him in. The anti-woke journalism mindset might have you believe keeping Trump off live air would be singling him out. But traditional journalistic standards say we should treat him like any other source who proves time and again to be dishonest. CNN thumbed its nose at those standards that night.
Licht got it wrong in other ways as well. Media in the past did not ignore that “those people exist.” It’s just that far too many people in mainstream media were slow to realize that “those people” could embrace a man as openly-bigoted and troubled as Trump. No serious journalist is asking news outlets to “ignore that President Trump exists.” The debate is about how to cover him responsibly, not if we should cover a former president and leading candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. And let’s be frank: There was nothing newsworthy about Trump declaring something as absurd as saying he’d end the Russian onslaught in Ukraine within a day. We learned nothing new about Trump that night.
The anti-woke mindset, though, was even more profoundly on display when CNN star Anderson Cooper took to the airwaves to defend the event.
He talked about Trump lies and actually called them lies — something it took mainstream media outlets years to get comfortable doing. Cooper empathized with the audience, said it was uncomfortable hearing Trump refer to a Black law enforcement officer as a thug and mock E. Jean Carroll, the woman a jury had just declared Trump sexually abused and defamed as a Trump-friendly audience laughed along with him. (After the town hall, Carroll’s lawyers requested that her lawsuit against the former president be amended to seek an additional $10 million in damages because of Trump’s comments calling her a “whack job” and saying her story was “fake.”) The audience had a right to be angry watching Trump continue lying about the 2020 election and praising conspiracy theories, Cooper said.
“I get it,” Cooper said. “It was disturbing.”
But an anti-woke journalism mindset wouldn’t allow Cooper to end his soliloquy there.
He added this: “You have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again. But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is gonna make that person go away?”
It’s the kind of false binary the anti-woke journalism mindset is built upon. Either we do and see things their way, or we are against standards and ethics. I saw evidence of that mindset in The New York Times’s reaction to a gaggle of journalists asking the paper of record to rethink how it covered trans issues when editors and executives reduced them to activists with an agenda instead of professionals calling for higher-quality journalism.
Unintentionally or not, they are treating journalism as though it is a religion. Once the high priests come down from the mountain with the tablets, the rest of us are supposed to fall in line as though the marching orders came directly from God. That’s why a growing number of media executives and top editors are reminding me of a pastor I knew. He told me that when his father was preaching, no one questioned the pastor. Whatever the pastor said was right. He lamented that things were no longer that way when we had a disagreement about the right way to diversify the church.
“I’m about Jesus,” he told me. “You’re about race.”
He believed he was prioritizing the health of the church, and that I wasn’t. Despite our long relationship and my track record, he did not see me as his equal — or only when I agreed with him.
He didn’t realize what he was doing. I suspect the same is true of media executives, editors, and commentators who have been so busy challenging other journalists they haven’t stopped long enough to consider that maybe they are the ones who are refusing to engage in the kind of critical thinking necessary during a moment like this. That maybe they have succumbed to outside pressure from conservative activists who want the media to pretend Trump isn’t what he obviously is and to proclaim that anti-democratic tendencies are equal threats coming from “both sides” even though they clearly aren’t.
CNN’s town hall is an awful reminder that some in the industry, thinking themselves more noble than the rest of us, have begun giving in to an onslaught of lies and misdirection once again, a cowardice from which all of us will suffer.