Former president Donald Trump made a rare live appearance on CNN, the network he spent years denouncing while in the White House

New York (AFP) - Donald Trump’s airing of falsehoods and insults in a prime-time CNN appearance triggered a deluge of criticism of the network, as media organizations once again grapple with how to cover the rule-breaking Republican seeking to win back the White House.

Thrust on the defensive, CNN pushed back Thursday, insisting the hour-long live “town hall” in New Hampshire was key to its “role and responsibility: to get answers and hold the powerful to account.”

But critics said it had merely provided Trump with a powerful platform to spread repeatedly debunked claims, attack a sexual abuse victim and praise violent rioters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 – all in front of an applauding audience and on national television.

During the broadcast late Wednesday, watched by more than three million people, Trump answered questions from registered Republicans and undeclared voters, with anchor Kaitlan Collins moderating and asking the 2024 candidate questions of her own.

The 76-year-old frontrunner for the Republican nomination repeated his false claim that the 2020 election had been rigged for President Joe Biden, which Collins pointed out was a lie.

Trump also said that if reelected next year, he would pardon a “large portion” of the hundreds of his supporters who have been jailed for their roles in the violent 2021 attack on Congress, to clapping from members of the audience.

Trump even insulted writer E. Jean Carroll, who won a sexual abuse and defamation lawsuit against him on Tuesday, as a “whack job,” with some in attendance laughing at the remark.

“There is simply no way CNN can feign ignorance about the fact that they set up a sexual assault victim to be targeted and attacked on national television a day after the verdict,” tweeted Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Criticism came from outside the ranks of the Democratic Party as well.

“It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening,” the network’s own media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote in a blog on CNN’s website.

CNN said in a statement carried by US media that Collins had “exemplified what it means to be a world-class journalist.”

“She asked tough, fair and revealing questions. And she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions as he enters the 2024 election as the Republican frontrunner.”

Darcy noted, however, that “Trump frequently ignored or spoke over Collins throughout the evening as he unleashed a firehose of disinformation upon the country, which a sizable swath of the GOP continues to believe.”

The New York Times described the broadcast – Trump’s first appearance since 2016 on a network he regularly denounced as “fake news” – as “a bracing preview of political coverage to come.”

- Forgotten lessons? -

For many media organizations, outside the circle of conservative outlets sympathetic to Trump, it revived a familiar conundrum: how to cover the Republican frontrunner when so much of what he says is factually wrong and inflammatory.

“In a democracy you have to allow people to form their own independent judgments,” said Rutgers University journalism professor David Greenberg, who believes suppression is not the answer though he himself is critical of Trump.

“It’s possible that people had forgotten how appalling Donald Trump is, and that this could serve as a good reminder,” he told AFP.

But Matt Jordan, a media studies associate professor at Penn State University, said CNN had performed “a terrible disservice to the public interest” by airing “entertainment” and “not news.”

“Responsible journalism verifies fact before publishing it,” he told AFP.

Reporters watch a CNN town hall with former US president and 2024 Republican hopeful Donald Trump at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire

It’s a familiar debate: back in 2016, some commentators accused media organizations of contributing to Trump’s election victory with disproportionate amounts of coverage.

“Has the media forgotten lessons learned from covering Trump in 2016?” asked a headline in the left-wing Guardian last month following wall-to-wall coverage of his historic court appearance on criminal charges in New York.

Many media organizations have ramped up their fact-checking teams since then but analysts point out that the extent and frequency of Trump’s falsehoods can make it hard to debunk them all.

“The terrible thing is that we’ve seen this show before, and we know how it ends. It ends with daily lying amplified because when a president says it, it’s news,” said Jordan.