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CNN’s town hall on gun violence was the network at its best — and worst

The teens might not save us, but neither will CNN.

CNN town hall
Stoneman Douglas High senior Emma Gonzalez asks NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch a question at a CNN town hall.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 18 through 24 is Stand Up — The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action: A CNN Town Hall. (Click through to watch the town hall in full, without commercials. You can read a transcript as well.)

I was at an event on Wednesday evening where I supposed to be paying attention to panel discussions full of TV writers and executives, but I kept surreptitiously checking Twitter. Something was happening on CNN, and, according to my feed, at least, it seemed to be one of the TV events of the year.

Both of Florida’s senators and one of its representatives, as well as a spokesperson from the National Rifle Association and the sheriff of Broward County — the home of Parkland, Florida, where a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14 left 17 people dead — were facing off with a bunch of angry teenagers, their parents, and their teachers. Sen. Marco Rubio, the onetime presidential hopeful, was coming under fire in particular. A frustrated comment he made about how the only way to stop assault weapons sales would be to ban them entirely led to wild applause from an audience that was sick of hearing such a task would be impossible.

The “town hall” has become one of CNN’s go-to programming formats in the Trump era, as the network tries, more and more, to place political opponents in the same room in the name of dialogue. Not all of these town halls have worked.

But the one the network held on Wednesday — designed to put students whose high school had been home to the latest high-profile mass shooting in a room with those who insist that the gun control and legislation the students desire isn’t possible for this, that, or another reason — was remarkable television. It pitted the immovable object of political gridlock and money in politics against the unstoppable force of teenagers who don’t yet know what can’t be done. When I got home that night, I pulled up CNN’s website and watched the whole thing, entranced.

By Friday, the town hall had already become a political football, reinterpreted and dissected by both sides of the gun control debate so that anybody who wants to have an opinion about it can have one ready to regurgitate at any moment. The teens who took part in it have been staggeringly effective at achieving their goals of keeping the Parkland shooting in the news and forcing America to reckon with its stance on guns. But all of the immediate anger that was on display during the town hall itself, all of the sadness, and all of the fear have been leached out of it. Now, it’s just another thing that happened, another thing to have an opinion about.

And make no mistake: That’s what CNN wants.

For many on the left, the CNN town hall crystallized the idea that the Parkland teens are America’s best shot at strengthening gun control

CNN Town Hall
Marco Rubio was the lone major Republican to take the stage.

The thing I found simultaneously most interesting and most confounding as I took in Wednesday’s town hall via Twitter was that my feed was filled with lots and lots of left-leaning folks (like, I should admit, myself) proclaiming that the teens were here to save us.

I got the idea. Left-leaning protest has been more successful at gumming up the works during the Trump administration than I ever would have imagined, but it seems to have merely slowed Donald Trump’s agenda, not stopped it. And into the middle of that comes a bunch of teenagers who don’t know they’re supposed to realize guns are a third rail in American politics, something you can’t even whisper about regulating because that will only inspire a bunch of gun fans to roar about how the government is coming to take all of their guns, not just some of them.

What the Florida teens have on their side is moral clarity, a sense that taking money from the NRA should be seen as so wicked that it becomes politically devastating. And to watch them jeer as Rubio refused to promise to never accept more money from the organization was cathartic. Freed from the burden of typical talking points — which are mostly disseminated by television, after all — the teens were armed with facts and statistics and a directness rarely seen in politics.

There’s a reason student Emma Gonzalez’s “We call BS” speech (which she delivered at a gun control rally the weekend before the town hall) became so instantly iconic. It wasn’t buried in layers of political obfuscating. It was stark, clear, certain of its righteousness. And considering how often the GOP makes “certain of its righteousness” central to its brand, it was startling to see Rubio reeling. Had you told me a month ago that “taking money from the NRA” would start to feel like a political albatross — even for a couple of hours — I might have scoffed. But here it was, happening live on TV.

And yet wasn’t the idea that teens were coming to save America a little weird? If the left believes America needs saving, shouldn’t we all be part of that endeavor, rather than relying on a bunch of high schoolers? There was a whiff of “Oh, good, here are a bunch of teenagers to do the hard work” to these statements.

Don’t get me wrong — I find what these students are doing incredibly inspiring, and I’m fascinated by the sense of certainty brought to politics by millennials and those in the generation younger than them (to which the teens of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High technically belong).

But the sentiment is still risky. It makes it all too easy to take something that maybe requires direct action today (as the teens realize) and shifting it to a future tense, to a time when these teens might be just as weary of this political process as all of us are.

It’s in CNN’s nature to present politics as a fundamentally rational argument. The town hall both undercut that and bolstered it.

CNN Town Hall
CNN’s cameras frequently captured emotional moments in the crowd.

There’s a reason CNN has latched onto the town hall format in the wake of Trump’s victory: They allow the network to continue to portray itself as the fundamentally rational center of American politics. And, honestly, if that’s how CNN sees itself, then it could do worse than setting up town hall events. Sometimes they’re riveting, and they’re always at least interesting. They also allow for a wider variety of political viewpoints than you might hear on other news programs, which stack their rosters with talking point-enabled pundits.

Plus, town halls help CNN bolster its image as America’s last rational network in a sea of political craziness. During each one, CNN positions itself — in this case via the anchor Jake Tapper, one of the network’s better hosts — as the peacemaker who’s trying to get everybody to respect and talk to each other. And as a moderator between two sides shouting over each other to be heard, Tapper did a fine job. He excellently burnished the CNN brand.

But something Rubio said early in the program stuck with me throughout. While explaining why he was attending the town hall, despite the fact that the crowd was very much not on his side, he talked about how America has become a country where citizens won’t talk to each other, where people have cut friends and family out of their lives based on whom they voted for in the 2016 election.

This is true, so far as it goes. Political polarization is an overwhelming force in American life right now, and it’s destroying a lot of previously good relationships that have been strained or even snapped by politics.

But at the same time, I’ve been watching a lot of Fox News lately for a different article I’m working on. As the immediate, starkly emotional content of the Parkland town hall gave way to political calculation, you could sense Fox News’s glee in not quite saying but definitely suggesting that the Florida teens weren’t genuine, but instead coached by CNN or the Democratic Party to say what they said. (A mini scandal about “scripted” questions that erupted and was quickly debunked a few days after the town hall didn’t help.)

Not many people would’ve believed that the teens’ emotions weren’t real when looking at their faces, when hearing their raw voices. But the further away we get from the event — or the more we only digest it via social media — the easier it is to imagine thought bubbles containing whatever motivations you want over the teens’ heads. Regardless of whether the teens really are going to save us, there’s a whole system in place to make them seem like political operatives rather than genuine human beings. And perhaps more importantly, there’s an entire sympathetic audience that wants nothing more than to believe the teens have ill intent, no matter how specious the evidence.

This is why I sometimes wonder if CNN hasn’t ultimately outwitted itself with these town halls. Now that we’re a few days removed from the Parkland town hall’s power and potency, it’s become too easy for gun control opponents to paint over it with a brand new set of colors, whether in speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference or on Fox News or just in internet comment threads. How do you report on the news when so many people believe that granting someone “respect” means granting them an alternate reality? Hell if I know, but CNN doesn’t seem all that curious to find out — not when it can stand amid the shouting voices and call for reason as the ship goes down.