CNN's 'Hospitable' Town Hall with Hillary Included Stage Director Coaching the Audience to Applaud to Add 'Energy'

Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple sat in the crowd at CNN’s “town hall” interview with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday and concluded: “If you’re a possible Democratic candidate, with or without a book to promote, and you want an experience that will elevate you, push for a CNN town hall in Washington. It’s hospitable turf.”

Wemple reported that to add “energy” to the Hillary event, the audience was coached to applaud Mrs. Clinton, which they did with great vigor, especially when Christiane Amanpour raised the prospect of Hillary running for president:

CNN deployed an enthusiastic stage director who coached the audience to applaud at various points throughout the broadcast — not in a partisan manner for Clinton, but for the sake of the town hall’s television optics. Approximately 15 minutes before the show, the producer ran the audience through a practice round of applause and noise-making. The results of the audience-prodding turn up in the show’s video.

Ovations were plentiful and, quite often, spontaneous. Clinton’s statements on gun control, immigration and other hot topics earned her crowd approval on her own merit.

Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, has studied the role of applause in such civic engagements. Though CNN wasn’t hosting a debate, Brown says that a cheering audience “at some point…becomes an editorial statement, it’s a part of what is broadcast. It becomes a part of the program and that’s why we have tried to do exactly the opposite.”

The audience at home was supposed to absorb the message that Hillary was very comfortable among the people, popular with the people, and really succeeding with the people. Except “the people” were partisan astroturf, carefully carpeted for appearances.

Wemple cited NewsBusters counting a 5-to-1 tilt to the liberal agenda in the ideological questions from the audience, and the more neutral softballs. He asked CNN how they assembled the crowd:

Just who were these audience members? A spokeswoman for CNN provided this explanation: “[W]e did what is standard practice for televised town meetings like this. We reached out to universities and community groups to book a diverse cross section of people from around the Washington, DC area and around the country. We don’t ask individuals their political affiliation, but we do seek diversity in community groups.”

The crucial words here are “standard practice.” The networks “book” an audience of liberals, who are show “diversity” in that some want liberal answers on gun control, and some want liberal answers on marijuana, and some want liberal answers on amnesty. Several questioners identified themselves with Johns Hopkins, which might make a viewer assume that Johns Hopkins was the event’s host.


The event took place at the Newseum, which is on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington between the Capitol and the White House. The District is a blue jurisdiction that turned out 91 percent for President Obama in the 2012 election, and it’s surrounded by places like Arlington County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md. — also very blue spots. When asked whether the Clinton camp played any role in how the town hall interview was presented, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill responded, “this was entirely [CNN's] show, so you should talk to them about it.”

Don’t buy that. Hillary is averse to spontaneity and surprise. If there was a chance for Tea Party conservatives to walk right in and ask questions, would she have said “Sure, bring it on?” Not a chance. This audience was negotiated before they were coached to applaud.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis