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Fallout from the Trump town hall exposes internal strife at CNN

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The debate over how to cover former President Donald Trump has roiled CNN after the network's town hall with him last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Are you ready? Can I talk?

KAITLAN COLLINS: Yeah. What's the answer?

TRUMP: Do you mind?

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: Can I - do you mind?

SHAPIRO: And broader behind the scenes dissent over the direction of the network has broken into public view. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: One of CNN's marquee names blasted the network's judgment two days ago in a notable setting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: This year marks my 40th year at CNN.

FOLKENFLIK: Christiane Amanpour, the CNN anchor and an international correspondent, was the featured speaker at Wednesday's commencement at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMANPOUR: I want to do what's right and empathize with and acknowledge all those who need to trust us at CNN, the most trusted name in news. I understand that the town hall a week ago was, for many, an earthquake.

FOLKENFLIK: The Trump town hall was live. He basked in the warmth of a sympathetic audience and steamrolled CNN host Kaitlan Collins despite her often tough approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLINS: I would like for you to answer the question.

TRUMP: OK. It's very simple to answer.

COLLINS: That's why I asked it.

TRUMP: It's very simple to - you're a nasty person. I'll tell you.

(APPLAUSE)

FOLKENFLIK: Amanpour said the event's structure was fatally flawed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMANPOUR: Time could very well prove that Trump's electroshock therapy to the world jolts the undecided into greater awareness. For me, of course, the fact that the American people voted three times against Trump and Trumpism - 2018, 2020, 2022 - also speaks volumes. We've done our duty. We have told the story.

FOLKENFLIK: What Amanpour said at Columbia bolsters an earlier critical analysis from CNN's own media reporter and what some other journalists in the CNN Newsroom have said privately. CNN Chairman Chris Licht came out of the box early last year with a mission and a vision to correct the course. He wanted to strip the network of the perception it was biased against conservatives and Republicans. Licht declined comment. On his CNN show, Anderson Cooper defended the town hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANDERSON COOPER 360")

ANDERSON COOPER: 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 going to make that person go away?

FOLKENFLIK: The head of CNN's parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery, told Wall Street investors yesterday that CNN was shedding its reputation as left-leaning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID ZASLAV: All the leadership at CNN is working hard. And Republicans are back on the air. The Republicans weren't on the air.

FOLKENFLIK: David Zaslav says Republicans were only on Fox News where, he says, they were preaching to the converted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZASLAV: As I've said to a number of them, and Chris has said to them, they're not going to get one more vote on Fox News. They already got that. CNN should be the place that people come for the best version of the truth and for journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: And that will help the bottom line, Zaslav told investors at the Moffett Nathanson media conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZASLAV: Chris is rebuilding the network. It's going to take some time, but advertisers are interested in CNN again. They don't want to be part of an advocacy network. We've had meeting after meeting, and they say, we're with you. America needs this. And our aim is true.

FOLKENFLIK: Even so, below the surface, CNN is struggling. The network's new vision has not yet coalesced into a new schedule. And while ratings spiked for a night on the Trump town hall, they collapsed after. Twice in recent days, conservative upstart channel Newsmax has beaten CNN in prime time. News professionals are wrestling with the question - is journalism up to the task of covering a third Trump bid for the White House? Staffers say that question resounds particularly loudly inside CNN. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEPALOT'S "LOVE OCEAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.