NEW YORK — CNN's decision to give former President Donald Trump a live town hall was a harsh lesson for the TV news business.
The live free-for-all on May 10 — which ultimately led to the demise of the network's last Chief Executive Chris Licht — showed the dangers of putting a presidential candidate known for dispensing misinformation in a format where fact-checking is a challenge.
Trump was able to spray numerous falsehoods and denials, making it impossible for anchor Kaitlan Collins to correct him. Criticism of the event was torrential, and some CNN viewers turned away from the network for days afterward.
But that debacle has not deterred Nextstar Media Group's cable channel NewsNation from giving a live platform Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern time to Democratic presidential aspirant Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is known for promoting false information about the safety of vaccines, most notably the debunked claim that they cause autism, and other dubious scientific theories.
"Wi-Fi radiation opens your blood-brain barrier, and all these toxins that are in your body can now go into your brain," Kennedy recently told podcast host Joe Rogan.
Although that might seem to be a disqualifying statement for a serious candidate, Kennedy will appear with anchor Elizabeth Vargas in NewsNation's Chicago headquarters for an hourlong session where the candidate will take questions from voters in the studio and remotely from New Hampshire and South Carolina, the first two states where primaries for the 2024 nomination will be held.
NewsNation, launched in 2020, isn't on par with the established cable news networks Fox News, CNN or MSNBC, delivering a small audience that has ticked up slowly in the last year but is still looking for broader recognition. That may partly explain why it's willing to pursue an attention-getting event — a concerning trend among experts who watched what recently happened with Trump.
"I think it just illustrates a dire need for completely rethinking what responsible coverage is," said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "CNN was wrong and irresponsible to do a Trump town hall, and it is wrong and irresponsible for NewsNation to give one to Kennedy, who repeatedly spouts demonstrably false claims and makes that the center of his campaign."
Kahn believes it would wiser to cover Kennedy in a taped sit-down interview where the candidate's false claims can be called out above the fray of an audience of voters.
At one time, Kennedy would be considered a fringe candidate that major TV news outlets could choose to ignore. But Trump showed the ability to draw ratings with extreme viewpoints, which led networks to give him more airtime and ultimately made him electable.
Even without significant coverage on mainstream outlets, Kennedy's famous name — and exposure on podcasts and social media — has managed to poll in the double digits in matchups against the Democratic incumbent Joe Biden.
Cherie Grzech, vice president of news and managing editor at NewsNation, cites that as reason enough to feature the candidate in a town hall format.
"It's our decision to let the audience hear from him, ask tough questions and find out more about him," Grzech said.
Grzech said Vargas, a veteran anchor who came to NewsNation after a long career at ABC News, is capable of holding Kennedy accountable for his statements. The network will also have a team of analysts blogging on its website to fact-check Kennedy, and will air a post-town hall analysis with former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo after.
Even with those measures in place, Mike Murphy, a veteran political consultant who contributes to NBC News, said it will be difficult to adequately filter out misinformation.
"You might know it's a lie, but it can still stick," he said.
Murphy believes the polls for Kennedy, an environmental lawyer who is the son of the slain U.S. senator and former attorney general and nephew of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, are misleading at this early stage of the campaign.
"It's based on name ID and whatever was loudest on cable TV a week ago," Murphy said. "He's got a famous name, but I think half at least of his supporters have no idea what he's for. There is some angst and dissatisfaction in the Democratic Party about Joe Biden so when they hear 'Kennedy,' he gets artificially high poll numbers."
For now, other networks are holding back on plans to give Kennedy a full hour. (Kennedy's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
But CNN's Jake Tapper said during a recent appearance on a podcast that he would not anchor a town hall with Kennedy. Tapper also noted in a CNN column how Kennedy once insisted without proof that a vaccine story he reported for ABC News years ago was killed due to corporate pressure.
"I had had plenty of pieces killed." Tapper wrote. "Not once did 'corporate' play a role in killing any of them."
Tapper said the 2005 piece did run in which he reported that "Kennedy alleges a government cover-up, arguing the Centers for Disease Control, in collusion with the pharmaceutical industry, suppressed data about the dangers of Thimerosal," a preservative that had been removed from vaccines years before.
CNN, which has featured Kennedy as a guest on its programs, had no further comment.
Fox News, where commentators often tout Kennedy as a potential threat to Biden, declined to reveal whether it has any plans to offer town hall platform.
Rashida Jones, the president of MSNBC, the politically progressive cable news channel, said in a recent forum that the town hall format in general is not going to be a part of its 2024 campaign coverage.
But if NewsNation can pull a large audience with its event on Wednesday, other networks may be tempted to step up next.