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Inside CNN’s Gut-Wrenching Florida Town Hall: How Jake Tapper Tackled His ‘Toughest’ Assignment

For Jake Tapper, Wednesday night’s town hall “was the toughest thing I’ve ever done at CNN.”

Surrounded by more than 5,000 people in Sunrise, Fla.’s BB&T Center, the CNN anchor on Wednesday night moderated one of the rawest and most emotionally charged events ever telecast on the all-news cable outlet. Students and teachers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the site of one of the nation’s most horrific school shootings, convened to seek answers from their representatives. With only a few days passing Feb. 14, when since a shooter left 17 dead at the school, students who survived the massacre, parents who lost children and teachers who had lost students lobbed questions at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch in a televised “town hall“. Sen. Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel also took part. And then there were the kids, who angrily pressed Rubio on the issue of accepting political donations from the NRA, among other matters.

Normally at a debate or a town hall, I would be quick to say to someone, ‘That was rude’ or ‘We’re going to try to keep it civil here,’ or ‘Let’s not have personal attacks,'” Tapper told Variety. “But in this situation, who am I to tell someone that just lost a daughter or a friend, ‘Don’t talk that way’?”

To be sure, Tapper did work to keep the crowd from shouting down responses, and he put the event in context: Florida’s Broward County is a Democratic bastion in a state that tilted red in the last election (meaning Rubio and Loesch would face a tough crowd). But Tapper was less the center of attention than he might have been in a format that has gained traction at CNN and other TV-news outlets in recent years. CNN is holding more town hall-style events – 23 in 2017, and more than 15 in 2016 – as viewers seek access to lawmakers and other influential figures in a format that avoids having a traditional sit-down with an anchor or correspondent.

Tapper has moderated or co-moderated 15 town halls for CNN since 2016, but this one was different, he acknowledged. CNN worked to accommodate the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community – parents, students and teachers – making certain as many who wanted could attend the event. In many cases, said Tapper, the network tries to put town-hall participants in front of an audience composed of people on many different sides of an issue. In this case, the network sought to give voice instead to people associated with a particular event.

The anchor realized he had to step carefully. “I would have liked to ask a number of participants about the investigation into the shooter,” he said. “I could think of a million questions for the three members of Congress who attended, but any time I might have done that there would have been somebody in the audience who didn’t get to ask a question, and that was not something I was prepared to do.”

CNN organized the Florida town hall in a matter of days, said Mark Preston, who supervises the organization of the network’s town halls and debates. Deutch reached out to Tapper two days after the shootings, suggesting the school might be open to a town hall event. Tapper checked first with CNN president Jeff Zucker, and then Preston and his team began holding discussions in earnest with local officials, the high school principal, and local law enforcement officials.

A town hall can garner attention a more formal newscast might not, said Ben Bogardus, an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, and lets viewers hear from newsmakers in unvarnished fashion. But the format can have a downside. “You do not have the ability to sort of moderate the debate by taking information from both sides and distilling it into a news report,” he said. “When you have something like this, a live conversation, the passion can get away from the content of the discussion.”

Others have tested the concept. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes visited McDowell County in West Virginia last March with Senator Bernie Sanders. ABC News in July of 2016 held an event with then-President Barack Obama and families of recent victims of police-related deaths in a one-hour telecast that was moderated by David Muir and broadcast across ABC, ESPN and Freeform along with various Disney-owned digital and radio outlets.

“The appetite for politics and for finding out what’s going on is so substantial that people just want it,” said Preston, CNN’s executive director of political programming, said of “town hall” programs.

The events can draw a larger-than-normal audience. CNN’s Florida town hall captured more people between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. overall (2.9 million) and in the 25-to-54 demographic most coveted by advertisers (1.1 million) than its competitors that evening, according to Nielsen. Fox News Channel remained the most-watched (2.5 million) of the three cable-news networks during full primetime hours.

Behind the scenes, the network had to  scramble, said Preston. CNN had 100 staffers on the ground in Florida – editors, engineers and others – over the weekend, and hired 150 more. The team initially chose a smaller venue that could fit about 900 people, but local officials insisted that any student or teacher from the high school who wanted to attend be able to do so. Stoneman Douglas’ enrollment hovers around 3,000.

As the event drew near, CNN reached out to political leaders it knew the students would want to question. President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott were invited along with Florida’s U.S. Senators and multiple Congressional representatives. The network also considered the NRA, knowing the organization’s presence would likely stir emotions. “We needed to offer them the opportunity. To their credit, they showed up,” said Preston. “They knew going into this that it was not going to be a friendly audience.”

CNN was prepared for audience members to be overcome during the two-hour broadcast. Eighty grief counselors supplied by the Red Cross and Broward County were stationed in different parts of the audience. Tapper said his team consulted with a mental health expert about what reactions they might encounter during the evening. “I was told that everyone handles grief and trauma differently. There is really no one way to expect and different people do different things,” he said. “Some people might not be able to ask questions. Some people might be angry.”

The town hall sparked immediate buzz on social media for the students’ fierce questioning , as well as the display of sorrow and outrage in a community grappling with a horrific tragedy. CNN has faced some criticism of its handling of the telecast, including accusations burnished by conservative media outlets that one student was provided a scripted question.

“There is absolutely no truth to this. CNN did not provide or script questions for anyone in last night’s town hall, nor have we ever,” said Richard Hudock, a CNN spokesman. A person familiar with the event said the student, Colton Haab, wanted to give a longer speech during the event about arming teachers. When CNN asked for a question on the topic rather than a speech, this person said, Haab’s father declined to allow his son to participate.

Viewer appetites for debates and town halls appears to be on the rise, said Preston. In 2007, he was involved with a series of presidential debates CNN had in which the candidates fielded questions via YouTube. Seeing newsmakers taking questions directly from people who might not otherwise be able to approach them is key to the events’ success, he said.  But news outlets can’t take weeks to prepare the programs, he added. “It has to be about an issue that the nation is focused on. What we have seen over the last 14 to 15 months is that he news cycle is no longer driven by the day. It’s now driven by the hour, and there are times when you have to be very strategic,” said Preston. “In two weeks or three weeks, people may no longer be interested in the subject. I try to look out for moments that I think will happen.”

Too many town halls may turn audiences off, cautions Bogardus, the journalism professor. “In order for it to be important, it has to be rare,” he added.

CNN, at least, is likely to give more time to the format – and so may others. There’s a distinct appeal, said Tapper, in seeing regular people ask tough questions of the powerful, and that’s not likely to diminish. “You try to arrange it so there’s a wide range of views one way or the other,” he said. “But real people have a way of doing what they want to do and going rogue in ways that television talent does not.”

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