About News

Let’s End Live TV Coverage of Politicians Talking

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

When the audience for CNN’s live “Town Hall” laughed at Donald Trump’s ridiculing of a proven sexual assault victim, do you think CNN’s president was pondering how many alienated Fox News viewers he would capture, or maybe how happy a conservative billionaire on CNN’s board would be? I doubt he was doing what he should have been doing: Vomiting.

Wednesday night’s live event manufactured by CNN was predictably disastrous. Even some CNN employees anonymously acknowledged the shame the cable network had brought upon itself. Trump discharged his familiar lies endlessly despite the commendable but essentially ineffective efforts of moderator Kaitlin Collins, a UA journalism grad with a track record of aggressive questioning of Trump.

CNN had to know what it was going to get from Trump. Either it didn’t care or foolishly thought it had a way to mitigate. Its baffling choice for an audience — Republicans who supposedly were still deciding who to support for president in 2024 — tells me it didn’t want to mitigate anything.

Many media critics and academic researchers argue persuasively that responsible news media must no longer give time or space to liars and haters, no matter how prominent they are. I have previously argued against this, believing it’s easier to fight a known enemy than a hidden one and believing in the ability of the audience to recognize the bad guys.

This view is increasingly hard to defend. Consider first the gullibility and denialism of large segments of the American public. Consider also that lies and hate speech don’t merely poison civic conversations. They can, in the minds of extremists, justify violence.

But it’s unlikely the news media will decide to ignore people of established political influence, including the malignant ones. The danger inherent in this demands at least that TV networks will not serve as puppets.

Toward this end, it’s time for networks to stop live broadcasting of events in which elected politicians talk. This means town halls, debates, speeches, rallies, one-on-one interviews, whatever. It’s just too impossible to do effective, real-time fact checking. The power of a moderator, if there is one, is limited.

Instead, show these events on tape, loaded up with visual, annotated truths. Excerpt the daylights out of them. Render them to voiceovers or graphics. Splice in knockdowns. (CBS’s controversial taped interview with Marjorie Taylor Greene in April would have benefitted from this, as “Wow” is not an effective knockdown.)

I make no distinction based on the person or the political party. But a network reasonably could. That would mean less live air for Republicans like Trump, but they’ve earned that.

I don’t think an end to live TV coverage is enough to neutralize the toxicity of some of our elected leaders and candidates. But it’s a big step up from the debacle that CNN gave us Wednesday night.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.