The chairman of CNN, Chris Licht, issued a robust defense on Thursday of his decision to broadcast a live town hall with former President Donald J. Trump, an unruly and bracing event that has prompted criticism inside and outside of the network.
On a network-wide editorial call, Mr. Licht congratulated the moderator, Kaitlan Collins, on “a masterful performance” before acknowledging the public backlash. “We all know covering Donald Trump is messy and tricky, and it will continue to be messy and tricky,” he said. “But it’s our job.”
“I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night,” Mr. Licht added. “People woke up and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before. And if someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, it damn well should be on CNN.”
The town hall, which aired in prime-time on Wednesday, featured Mr. Trump deploying a fusillade of falsehoods, sometimes too quickly for the moderator to intercept.
Ms. Collins interrupted and corrected Mr. Trump again and again, calling out his lies about a rigged 2020 election and his depiction of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as “a beautiful day.” Mr. Trump, however, often talked right over her. The live audience, a group of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters, often cheered him on, even when he derided Ms. Collins as a “nasty person.”
“While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story,” Mr. Licht said on Thursday, “because the people in that audience represent a large swath of America. And the mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist. Just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists.”
Critics said it was reckless for the network to provide a live forum to Mr. Trump, given his track record of spreading disinformation. Even the network’s own commentators appeared taken aback by what had transpired on its airwaves. “We don’t have enough time to fact check every lie he told,” Jake Tapper told viewers on Wednesday night.
Mr. Licht, who took over CNN last year after the network was acquired by Warner Bros. Discovery, has had a rocky tenure, and some journalists there have bristled at his public comments that the network had veered too far into an anti-Trump stance when Mr. Trump was in the White House. Mr. Licht has said CNN must appeal to more centrists and conservative voters, a strategy that has support from his corporate superiors.
There were signs on Thursday that frustration inside CNN about the town hall were bubbling up. The network’s own media newsletter, “Reliable Sources,” published a tough assessment after the event, noting, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.”
The newsletter cited several critical posts on social media about the Trump forum, including some observers who faulted the network for choosing a town hall-style format where voters were free to jeer Ms. Collins, the moderator.