On Thursday, CNN hosted a town hall for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, giving the Republican a national platform to continue his crusade against trans inclusion and so-called “critical race theory.”
CNN’s town hall, moderated by anchor Jake Tapper, was advertised as “The War Over Education With Governor Glenn Youngkin” and aimed to address education as it “continues to spark debate and conversation across the country.” Ahead of the event, Youngkin published an op-ed on the CNN website in which the governor boasted about Virginia schools and spoke about the importance of parent involvement, including “direct input on education performance standards and proposed policies.”
While the event’s stated purpose was tackling “the issues that matter the most to families in Virginia and across the nation,” the platform CNN gave to Youngkin more closely resembled PR for the relatively new politician than a well-rounded discussion. Youngkin’s official Twitter account repeatedly promoted the town hall, sharing excerpts from the event.
The timing of this town hall is especially curious as Youngkin is rumored to be likely to join a crowded field of candidates vying for the 2024 Republican Party presidential nomination. Much like his multistate tour last year, Youngkin’s CNN town hall gives him the opportunity to boost his national name recognition — a particularly important task given that a Monmouth University poll from last month showed that 56% of GOP voters had no opinion or had not heard of him.
Youngkin has a tumultuous history on education, having built his 2021 gubernatorial campaign largely by inflaming conservative culture wars on the issue. In particular, Youngkin stoked fears that the academic concept of “critical race theory” (which is predominantly taught at the graduate level) had been used to indoctrinate school-aged children. After he was elected, Youngkin also appointed multiple people who had spread misinformation about CRT to state positions overseeing education and efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. He also dedicated his first executive order as governor to targeting “divisive concepts,” which he deemed central to eradicating CRT. Youngkin has also targeted trans communities by releasing new policies that could out trans students under guidelines requiring parental approval to change a student’s name or pronouns.
During the town hall, a high school band director asked Youngkin if he thinks state school boards have “an unspoken culture of racism and implicit bias against teachers of color within school districts.” In response, the governor lamented, “We’ve found ourselves in a moment where we're allowing ourselves to be pitted against one another in all things. And we all of a sudden find that everything has to be viewed through a lens of race. I don’t think we should ignore our past; I think we should know it.”
When asked by a teacher about the difference between “teaching CRT in the classroom and the teaching of historical injustices such as slavery and segregation,” the governor largely danced around the question, remarking that “we need to make sure that we are teaching all of our history, the good and the bad,” and fearmongering that Virginia students have fallen victim to “divisive concepts … that were forcing our children to judge one another.” Youngkin also asserted that CRT is “a philosophy that's incorporated in the curriculum.”
Later in the town hall, Youngkin fielded questions about his administration’s anti-trans policies, which he largely defended, pushing for so-called parents’ rights. While addressing a question from a teenage trans boy, Youngkin advocated for the sex separation of “biological girls” and “biological boys” in school sports, stating, “I think sports are very clear. And I don't think it's controversial. I don't think that biological boys should be playing sports with biological girls. There's been decades of efforts in order to gain opportunities for women in sports. And it's just not fair.”
Though Youngkin clarified that “there's no room for bullying” and that “there's no room for harassment,” he still noted that his “number one priority is to make sure, after students are safe, that their parents are involved in their lives” — even though right-wing operatives masquerading as parents’ rights groups have lobbied against trans-inclusive school policies. Youngkin continued to defend parents’ rights when Tapper asked how schools would manage the demands of anti-LGBTQ parents, asserting, “I believe firmly that parents have a right to be engaged in their children's lives, and parents want to be engaged in children's lives. And a child does want their parent.”
CNN’s choice to host Youngkin seems to reflect the company’s ongoing lurch toward the political right. For months, the network has increasingly given credence to right-wing talking points under the direction of CEO Chris Licht. Just this week, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota dedicated 17 minutes of airtime to a segment about “woke” language, as inspired by a piece in The Atlantic that stated, “Equity language doesn’t fool anyone who lives with real afflictions. It’s meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it.” The article’s author, George Packer, appeared during the segment, claiming that so-called woke language “reminds me a little of the workers in Orwell's 1984 assembling the dictionary of Newspeak, which is the process of destroying words in order to make unorthodox thought impossible.”