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CNN was 'right to try' a town hall with Trump even if it failed, argues moderator

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A farce, a disaster, a word that rhymes with hit show - some of the kinder reviews from media observers for last night's live CNN town hall with Donald Trump, in which the former president of the United States and current GOP front-runner for 2024 lied repeatedly and talked over moderator Kaitlan Collins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Can I talk?

KAITLAN COLLINS: Yeah, what's the answer?

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: Do you mind? Can I - do you mind?

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.

KELLY: Well, Jon Ralston, CEO of The Nevada Independent, was watching as the interview unfolded. He tweeted, I am so sad, and, in all caps, sigh. This morning, he also tweeted, it was right to try even if it failed.

Jon Ralston, welcome.

JON RALSTON: Hi there.

KELLY: Hi. So you defend CNN's decision to put this on air and do it live. Why was it right to try?

RALSTON: Well, I really don't understand the criticisms of those who say it wasn't. I mean, whatever you think of Donald Trump - and yes, he is a pathological liar. He's also the Republican front-runner, and so you should, of course, try to interview him. Whether that was the right format and how it was executed is a different issue.

KELLY: Yeah. As you know, a lot of the criticism has been about the format - the decision to do this live, when it's harder to fact-check, with a live audience, in this case stacked with Trump supporters who cheered and applauded him, as we just heard. How did that contribute?

RALSTON: Well, having a live audience for a debate in a presidential race or to interview a president is a terrible idea, in my opinion, all the time. But you knew that going in. If that was the deal that CNN agreed to, so be it. So...

KELLY: But again, do you have to try to do it live? I've interviewed plenty of folks in Trump's orbit, and the furious pace of falsehoods is really challenging to fact-check in real time. If you stop and fact-check every thing, you're never going to get to your next question. And then you've lost control.

RALSTON: Well, you and I have a slight disagreement there. I spent a lot of my career interviewing people live, and I liked doing things live. Now, there's no one like Donald Trump, but I've interviewed other presidential candidates who were very difficult to interview because they're very good at answering the question they want to answer and not the question that you asked them. But you have to call them on that, and you have to be willing to stop them. And the bottom line is, if it's live, you can't be accused afterwards of deceptive editing. You and I both know that the position Kaitlan Collins was in last night was an incredibly difficult one. She did her best at times, but I really think that you can stop him at every lie. Yes, you might get fewer questions, but so be it. That is your job.

KELLY: CNN has put out a statement praising Kaitlan Collins. It said, and I quote, "she followed up and fact-checked President Trump in real time to arm voters with crucial information about his positions."

My question to you, Jon Ralston, did we get crucial information here, in your view - revelations that advance our knowledge of Trump's policies or positions?

RALSTON: I think, sadly, the answer to that is mostly no. And look, there was, quote-unquote, "news" made because of some of the things that he said on abortion and on Ukraine, but that is more to be used by his political opponents in ads. We already knew his position on Ukraine and on abortion, although he - his position on the federal ban was interesting in that he has no position.

KELLY: Yeah. To circle back, you said, look, you can't ignore him - I'm paraphrasing - but he's the front-runner for president. The next time around, you have to interview him. Is there a point where you would draw a line and say, actually, no - this person should not be given airtime because that interview, no matter how skillfully it's done, is going to yield more misinformation than truth?

RALSTON: It's a very, very difficult question, Mary Louise. And I don't think there's an easy answer. But the only reason that you should never turn it down is you have full faith that the person doing the interview is as prepared as can be. And you know better than anybody that preparation is huge for any kind of interview and being able to listen to what the interviewee is saying and interrupt, if necessary - call that person out, say that it's misinformation. That's our job - to try to elicit information. However you do that, I think you have to have a strategy. I didn't see that.

KELLY: Jon Ralston, CEO of The Nevada Independent. Thank you.

RALSTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.