Licht’s Dispassion Punch

CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht had advised Collins not to be combative with Trump, sources familiar said.
CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht had advised Collins not to be combative with Trump, sources familiar said. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Semafor
Dylan Byers
May 12, 2023

Kaitlan Collins, the ascendant CNN prime-time star and the next great down-the-middle hope of Chris Licht’s attempt to rebrand his flailing news network, opened the 9 p.m. hour on Thursday with a true-enough declaration: the live town hall she had moderated with former president Donald Trump some 24 hours earlier was “a major inflection point in the Republican party’s search for its nominee and potentially the starting line for America’s next presidential race.” At the very least, the 70-minute event thrust Trump back to the forefront of the national conversation, reminded everyone that the G.O.P. frontrunner has become more brazen than ever in his disregard for truth and democratic norms, and suggested that, despite his demonstrable malfeasance, his uniquely self-assured anti-establishment swagger remains a winning sell among the Republican base.

Beyond that, assessments of how CNN handled the event were mixed. The broad consensus—among many liberals, never-Trump conservatives, MAGA faithful and professional political observers—is that Collins, despite her steady efforts as fact-checker, couldn’t fully contain a predictably impertinent and devious pugilist who lied, interrupted and eluded faster and more forcefully than she could possibly keep pace. In a customary circling of the wagons, many of Collins’ friends and colleagues in the media praised her performance as “masterful” (Licht), “heroic” (Peter Baker), even “matador”-like (Van Jones), and so on, often alluding to the near-impossible task of taming such an unhinged political animal. 

That’s all fair, but such assessments set dispiritingly low expectations for journalism in the Trump era. Collins survived Trump’s onslaught by correcting the record as often as possible and then moving on to the next topic. She elicited some news and maintained her composure. That’s all well and good, but Jonathan Swan or Savannah Guthrie this was not.