Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav defended CNN’s controversial decision to host an upcoming live town hall forum with former President Donald Trump.
“The U.S. has a divided government. We need to hear both voices,” Zaslav told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Friday.
He continued: “Republicans are on the air on CNN, Democrats are on the air. … When we do politics, we need to represent both sides. I think it’s important for America.”
The town hall, set to take place on May 10 in New Hampshire at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, will include a Q&A with Republicans and voters that will be moderated by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. The event follows Trump’s kickoff of his reelection bid and marks his first town hall style event of the 2024 presidential campaign.
News of the town hall sparked controversy for multiple reasons. First, the former president is well known to spread disinformation, including repeated false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. He is also not a normal candidate, as he is currently under indictment for alleged hush money payments and facing multiple potential criminal investigations related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and incite an attack on Congress, as well as for his refusal to turn over classified documents after he left the White House. He is also currently facing a civil rape trial.
And critics have argued that CNN is doing what it did during the 2016 campaign, when Trump received uninterrupted TV coverage from CNN and other networks that amounted to billions of dollars worth of free advertising.
And then there are the clashes Trump has had with the network.
According to The Associated Press, Trump never gave an interview with CNN reporters during his presidency, and repeatedly denounced the news outlet as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” A Trump adviser told the AP that the success in his 2016 campaign depended on sticking to traditional comfort zones for Republicans when it came to media appearances.
But Trump ended his CNN boycott and has agreed to participate in the live town hall — a decision likely meant to draw a contrast with his strongest expected GOP opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has steered away from mainstream media appearances while in office, the AP reports.
“[Trump is] the front-runner — he has to be on our network. We’re happy he’s coming on there,” Zaslav told CNBC.
Zaslav added that “this is a new CNN,” referring to Discovery’s acquisition of the network following a merger with Warner Bros. in April 2022. Following the merger, Chris Licht, former executive producer and showrunner of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” took over Jeff Zucker’s role as CEO of CNN.
During an interview with CNBC in October, Licht said he wants CNN to feature viewpoints from both sides of the political divide, but that he won’t stand for disinformation.
“The analogy I love to use is some people like rain, some people don’t like rain. We should give space to that. But we will not have someone who comes on and says it’s not raining,” Licht told CNBC.
Trump’s appearance on CNN will put Licht’s promise to the test.
The town hall will be televised live, rather than airing a pre-recorded interview with Trump — an option that could be safer, so his statements could be fact-checked beforehand. But the network says it intends to “hold him accountable” throughout the event.
“President Trump is the Republican frontrunner, and our job despite his unique circumstances is to do what we do best,” a CNN spokesperson told told CNBC on Friday. “Ask tough questions, follow up, and hold him accountable to give voters the information they need to sort through their choices.”