The televised town hall interview has become a mainstay of the presidential campaign coverage cycle—so much so that CNN even gave Donald Trump the opportunity to speak directly to millions of viewers last month. Trump’s town hall devolved into a “spectacle of lies,” according to CNN’s own media critic, as the ex-president regurgitated his conspiracy theories about the “rigged” 2020 election, mocked his sexual assault accuser, and lied about abortion laws. Since, CNN town halls with Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, and Mike Pence have been notably less of a scene. While it appeared that the network’s position under ex-CEO Chris Licht (who lost a lot of support internally after the Trump town hall, leaving CNN shortly thereafter) was to give any presidential candidate the chance at a town hall, at least one person at CNN is seemingly hoping for a recalculation when it comes to another conspiracy-hawking candidate: Long-shot Democratic presidential contestant and anti-vaccine fanatic Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“[Kennedy] spreads dangerous misinformation about childhood vaccines,” Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, told Pod Save America this week, asserting that he would not host a town hall with Kennedy. Tapper recalled a 2005 interview he conducted with Kennedy an an anti-vaccine article Kennedy had written for Salon and Rolling Stone that year (both publications have since retracted the articles for deep factual inaccuracies). “He was so dishonest in that experience,” Tapper said, “and since then, he lies about the experience frequently as an example of how the media is co-opted by Big Pharma.”
Kennedy has in fact woven the incident into his campaign’s talking points, telling conservative podcaster Jordan Peterson earlier this month that Tapper, who then worked for ABC, had collaborated with him “for three weeks doing this incredible documentary”—only to see it killed by network higher-ups the night before it was set to run. “[Tapper] called me up and said, ‘The piece just got killed by corporate,’” Kennedy claimed. In a Thursday editorial, Tapper vehemently disputed both of those claims: There was never a documentary in the works, and the real piece—a two-minute segment that took a few days of work—actually made it to air. When ABC ran the segment, Tapper said, he made the following disclaimer: “The medical community overwhelmingly disagrees with Kennedy, who is not a scientist or a doctor. They point out that autism rates are not decreasing, even though thimerosal has been removed from most childhood vaccines as a precaution.” Tapper concluded in his Thursday op-ed that, to this day, Kennedy “remains someone you cannot rely upon for facts, truth, or accuracy.”
It’s not clear whether CNN would extend a town hall offer to Kennedy or not (CNN did not respond to a request for comment). That doesn’t mean Kennedy is short on media opportunities; he is set to participate in a town hall next week on NewsNation, a small cable news channel. The event will be moderated by Elizabeth Vargas, who spent years at ABC News as the coanchor of 20/20 and World News Tonight. (Interestingly, it was ABC News that made headlines in April for choosing to edit out false claims Kennedy made about COVID-19 vaccines in a prerecorded interview for the network.)
Kennedy has also received plenty of love from the right-wing press. “There’s never been a candidate for president the media hated more than Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,” declared Tucker Carlson on the latest episode of his Twitter show. “You thought that title belonged to Donald Trump…but go check the coverage.” Later in the episode, entitled “Bobby Kennedy Is Winning,” Carlson declared Kennedy “the most censored famous person in the United States,” and attacked “the [media] gatekeepers” who have criticized or debunked the candidate’s anti-vax assertions. In response, Kennedy, the son of former US attorney general Bobby Kennedy and nephew of John F. Kennedy, expressed his gratitude. “Thanks @TuckerCarlson,” he tweeted. “Grateful.”
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