CNN Chief Jeff Zucker, Jake Tapper Respond to Town Hall Critics: "They'll Get Over It"

Illustration by Bartosz Kosowski

The network's top exec and star anchor reflect on the ambitious town hall event as the high-rated forum for Florida shooting survivors becomes a flashpoint for the new era of media wars.

The "fake news!" chants started without a prompt on Feb. 22, filling the cavernous meeting room at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center outside Washington, D.C. There, a pugilistic Sean Hannity, hosting his Fox News show live at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, told the crowd that CNN had "scripted" a question for a Parkland, Florida, student to ask at a Feb. 21 town hall on gun violence.

An hour before Hannity, fellow Fox News host Tucker Carlson had interviewed the student who originally made the accusation, and President Trump used Twitter to amplify what quickly became a preferred narrative for right-leaning media: CNN, rather than providing an open forum for expression, had effectively rigged the debate.

That the incendiary claim was subsequently debunked — with CNN releasing emails among the student, his father and a network producer as proof — didn't faze some in the pro-Trump crowd. In fact, even as the town hall was receiving plaudits from the mainstream media, the Florida event was being used as an example of how CNN has morphed into a partisan player. "CNN has decided to take this path where they are kind of left-wing advocates," says Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and organizer of CPAC.

It's a characterization that CNN president Jeff Zucker finds insulting. "That criticism is silly," Zucker tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The fact is we were there, we presented both sides. People who want to criticize are looking to just criticize before they even think about it." He points out that Sen. Marco Rubio could have been joined by Trump or Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, but both declined CNN's invitation. "That's not CNN's problem," he adds.

From a ratings perspective, Zucker's town hall was a big hit, winning its time slot with 2.9 million viewers (Fox News still led the night with an average of 2.5 million compared with CNN's 2.4 million). "I think it was a really important milestone in this conversation because for one of the few times, people who have different points of view were together," says Zucker. "And the problem is: all too often, whether it’s on blogs or websites or partisan television networks, people are just talking to themselves. And nothing will ever change if we don’t start talking to one another."

But the gun dustup highlights the increasing polarization of news audiences as even an ambitious and timely CNN event — conceived as an opportunity for students and parents to share their grief rather than as a Crossfire-style debate on gun policy — nonetheless is subject to heightened scrutiny and cries of advocacy journalism. "People even view grief through a partisan lens," says Jake Tapper, who moderated the town hall. Tapper, who presided over the event with a noticeably light touch, accepts "legitimate" critiques and rejects complaints that, he says, emanate from the "cottage industry of people who criticize CNN no matter what we do."

The irony, of course, is that the "cottage industry" that attacks CNN for partiality mostly is made up of partisan players, from Hannity to Carlson to sites like Breitbart or The Daily Caller. Boosted by the president, those criticisms have gotten loud enough that CNN embarked on an ad campaign in October titled "Facts First" to assert its journalistic impartiality.

Michael Steele, an MSNBC contributor and former Republican National Committee chairman, says the CNN town hall was "powerful" and "important" and an example of the positive role that TV can play in society. "The opportunity for these forums to take place is there," says Steele, "and in this climate, at this time, it's a good chance for these networks to open their doors and bring elected officials in with the public and say hello."

Perhaps not helping CNN's image, the town hall also sparked renewed activism among liberals pushing for gun control, especially in Hollywood. Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur and showrunner Shonda Rhimes joined the chorus of anti-NRA sentiment on Twitter, and NBC's Blacklist star Megan Boone declared that her character no longer will carry assault weapons.

That activism — and CNN's perceived role in it — now ends up fueling the conservative media position that these events are simply sensationalism for ratings. Katrina Pierson, who served as a spokeswoman for Trump's campaign and regularly defends him on TV, says CNN moved too quickly and "politicized" the discussion. "You expect that from organizations who haven't been able to break into the top 10 in the primetime lineup lately," says Pierson with a Trumpian flair for ratings jabs.

Fox News' Greg Gutfeld, a co-host of The Five who suggested on air that teachers should learn "hand-to-hand" combat to help thwart school shooters, criticized CNN for holding the town hall only hours after the president's listening session with Florida survivors. And a day after her town hall appearance, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch targeted CNN's focus on gun massacres, telling the CPAC crowd that "many in legacy media love mass shootings."

"We’ve been doing town halls now for three or four years on every topic imaginable," Zucker says. "And people think this was the first time we did it. This is actually part of what our brand has been the last three or four years. This is the obvious next step in it. ... I think the reaction to it is an indication of how engaged in this topic the country is, how divided the country is on it and how emotional it is for everyone."

When asked if CNN will hold town halls in other cities, Zucker reiterates that there are no specific plans, but says, "We’re going to have to see how this story evolves."

Reflecting on the backlash at the end of a long week, Tapper tells THR he's more concerned about the families of the victims of the shooting than he is about those who claim to be outraged by CNN's programming decisions. "However offended anybody was at the passion in the town hall, and however upset they were at mean words that were said to Sen. Rubio or Dana Loesch, they'll get over it," he says. "And the people in that stadium, they won't."

Marisa Guthrie contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.