Gun-rights advocates were naturally skeptical of CNN's "Guns in America" TV special, starring President Obama. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin articulated their collective suspicion nicely this week, when she wrote that "CNN has a long history of allowing political plants to flourish in its public forums." She even compiled a long list of participants in the cable channel's previous town hall events whose loyalties and affiliations were not adequately disclosed.

"Once a manipulative gardener, always a manipulative gardener," Malkin added, suggesting the network would rig Thursday's primetime event in the president's favor.

Then, a funny thing happened: As the telecast unfolded — and Obama faced tough questions from host Anderson Cooper; the widow of "American Sniper" Chris Kyle, Taya Kyle; GOP congressional candidate and Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Ariz.; rape survivor Kimberly Corban; and others — many conservatives who were coiled and ready to strike agreed that CNN had actually assembled a solid cast of questioners and presided over an uncommonly thoughtful conversation.

Cooke is a writer for the National Review, Gutowski writes for the Washington Free Beacon, and VerBruggen is a former editor of the National Review's Phi Beta Cons blog who now edits RealClearPolicy. CNN couldn't win over Malkin, however.

Hey, you can't please everyone, but the praise from the right showed that the media — with a properly balanced format — really can perform the essential function of informing the public through reasonable discourse. As our own Erik Wemple put it, "this was perhaps the most civil gun discussion that cable news could possibly have produced."

And the willingness of folks like Cooke, Gutowski and VerBruggen to recognize as much showed that people aren't always as intractable as our cynical minds believe — an encouraging sign when we're talking about a dig-in-your-heels issue like gun control.

Alas, the good juju didn't last long.

Indeed, the postgame analysis show — in which CNN's Jake Tapper tried to maintain order among eight panelists — quickly devolved into a heated recitation of partisan talking points. At one point, when former New York City police detective Harry Houck said "we know that more laws don't work" and suggested gun violence is up in Chicago because "the president doesn't want to put anybody in jail," Democratic strategist Van Jones responded, "I can't deal with every crazy thing you just said."

Another panelist labeled the notion that Obama wants to take away guns "absurd," and still another posited that Obama might propose charging $1,000 for a gun permit.

Civility, it was nice knowing you.

The biggest source of tension was one of the town hall's most memorable moments: an animated exchange between Obama and Cooper about the conservative "conspiracy" theory that Obama will eventually move to confiscate or ban guns. Republican presidential front-runner candidate Donald Trump encapsulated the concern this week when he said in an interview (on CNN, of course) that "pretty soon you won't be able to get guns."

Obama told Cooper it is a "false notion" that he has a secret agenda. "I'm only going to be here for another year," he pointed out, exasperated by the question. "When would I have started on this enterprise, right?"

But some on the CNN panel Thursday night — conservative commentators Hugh Hewitt and S.E. Cupp and former New York City police detective Harry Houck — were clearly unconvinced. They, like many gun owners, don't believe Obama is acting in good faith. And this was the first topic discussed at length after the town hall.

Thus, what began as a shining example of the media's great potential ended as an example of its great limitation. When people trust the press to be even-handed, it can create the conditions for a robust conversation. But when they don't trust the people at the center of the story, the whole thing falls apart in a hurry.