Though CNN touted its Tuesday session with Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “town hall exclusive,” a great number of American towns apparently didn’t tune in. The hour-long interview, which took place in the Knight Studio of the Newseum, just managed to edge out MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” in the 5 p.m. television ratings. That’s what happens when you traffic in a commodity interviewee: Clinton had already done sessions with ABC News, NBC News and Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air,” all as part of the promotional tour for her book “Hard Choices.”
Small viewing crowd notwithstanding, the Clinton camp couldn’t have been upset with the outcome. The quite-probable 2016 presidential candidate thrived in the town hall format, making nice little connections with the citizen-questioners and chatting with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour about the minutiae of diplomacy. The questions helped, too. Tim Graham of NewsBusters opines that five of the six questions from audience members came from a liberal perspective, while four of the five “neutral” questions were “softballs.”
Clinton did field a question asking her to clarify her history on the gay marriage issue. And she did have to take on a question about whether President Obama had quit Iraq too early. But she also got to help herself to this one: “My question is, if you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be?” That came from George Washington University business student Krisstarah Gonzalez.
Just who were these audience members? A spokeswoman for CNN provided this explanation: “[W]e did what is standard practice for televised town meetings like this. We reached out to universities and community groups to book a diverse cross section of people from around the Washington, DC area and around the country. We don’t ask individuals their political affiliation, but we do seek diversity in community groups.”
The event took place at the Newseum, which is on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington between the Capitol and the White House. The District is a blue jurisdiction that turned out 91 percent for President Obama in the 2012 election, and it’s surrounded by places like Arlington County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md. — also very blue spots. When asked whether the Clinton camp played any role in how the town hall interview was presented, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill responded, “this was entirely [CNN's] show, so you should talk to them about it.”
To add “energy” to its show (attended by the Erik Wemple Blog), CNN deployed an enthusiastic stage director who coached the audience to applaud at various points throughout the broadcast — not in a partisan manner for Clinton, but for the sake of the town hall’s television optics. Approximately 15 minutes before the show, the producer ran the audience through a practice round of applause and noise-making. The results of the audience-prodding turn up in the show’s video.
Ovations were plentiful and, quite often, spontaneous. Clinton’s statements on gun control, immigration and other hot topics earned her crowd approval on her own merit.
Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, has studied the role of applause in such civic engagements. Though CNN wasn’t hosting a debate, Brown says that a cheering audience “at some point…becomes an editorial statement, it’s a part of what is broadcast. It becomes a part of the program and that’s why we have tried to do exactly the opposite.” At the official presidential debates, the audience gets no encouragement to applaud, and it may do so only at the beginning and end of the sessions.
Whatever the optics, here’s the deal: If you’re a possible Democratic candidate, with or without a book to promote, and you want an experience that will elevate you, push for a CNN town hall in Washington. It’s hospitable turf.