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Opinion CNN: It was our idea to do Obama town hall on guns

President Obama (Reuters)
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President Obama these days is all about guns. Yesterday he held a teary news conference to champion a measure to expand background checks for gun buyers. “We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence,” said the president, who was surrounded by gun-control advocates and victims of gun violence. There’s more to come, too: Tomorrow night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper will host a town hall meeting with Obama at George Mason University.

From the outside, that looks awfully convenient for the White House: A nationally televised program on a topic central to the president’s legacy agenda. Just whose idea was this, anyway?

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CNN is saying it was theirs. “A CNN spokesperson said that it was the network, not the White House, that proposed the idea of a town hall on guns,” notes a CNN article on the matter. Yesterday, the Erik Wemple Blog asked CNN about it and was awaiting a response when the CNN article surfaced. A representative for George Mason University yesterday told the Erik Wemple Blog that the space for the town hall meeting is rented to CNN, which accordingly retains control over the invitations. The CNN rep told CNN that “the audience would be evenly divided between organizations that support the Second Amendment including NRA members as well as groups that back gun regulation.”

The NRA itself has turned down an invitation. “The National Rifle Association sees no reason to participate in a public relations spectacle organized by the White House,” said an NRA spokesman.

Obama has sat down for hundreds upon hundreds of one-on-one interviews, and so news organizations are wise to propose less conventional formats to engage the commander in chief. In February 2015, MSNBC and Telemundo co-sponsored a town hall with the president on immigration, with José Díaz-Balart presiding over the discussion. CNBC did a presidential town hall on investing in 2010. In April, Obama did a town hall with BlogHer on issues facing working women.

One problem with engaging the White House in monotopical town hall meetings is news: For instance, what if some big non-gun-related event — a stock-market meltdown, perhaps — takes place on Thursday? Will CNN be violating its terms with the White House if it asks about the economy during the “Guns in America” event? A CNN rep tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the White House understands that news could force a detour in the questioning.

Why would CNN propose a town hall on one of Obama’s priority issues? A couple of reasons: 1) Because if it doesn’t, one of its competitors just might; and 2) Let’s face it, the White House has a heady amount of leverage over CNN and NBC News and ABC News and every other Beltway outlet when it comes to these things. That leverage explains how the White House manages to round up columnists on a pretty routine basis for message-dispersing off-the-record sessions. It also explains the ability of the White House to choose an interviewer from the mainstream media when it has news to push out. “[W]ith the proliferation of television news outlets, it became a seller’s market and so presidents and other high visibility ‘gets’ can choose their interviewers based on their desired target audience or the anticipated friendliness of the interviewer,” journalism professor Mark Feldstein told this blog in 2012, when the White House pretty much chose ABC News’s Robin Roberts to interview the president about his evolution on same-sex marriage. “Networks that don’t accede risk losing the big interview to a competitor so they usually — happily — comply.”

At a briefing this afternoon, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the town hall will include people who agree and disagree with the president’s views on gun violence. As to the control protocols, Earnest said, “We’ve consulted with CNN about who will be in the audience but ultimately it’s CNN who is making the call about who will participate.”