CNN faces high-profile test in Trump-Biden debate

CNN will be put to a high-profile test when the network hosts Thursday night’s debate between President Biden and former President Trump — the first nationally televised clash between the two men since 2020.

CNN and its moderators, the veteran anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, will be under enormous pressure to ask all the necessary questions of Trump and Biden, and to make sure they are seen as fair in moderating the debate.

CNN has said microphones used by the two candidates will be muted throughout the debate except when it’s that candidate’s turn to speak, while Tapper and Bash will be “empowered to use all tools at their disposal to enforce timing and ensure a civilized discussion.”

It’s a precaution intended to prevent a repeat from the raucous 2020 debate between the two men, who repeatedly talked over one another in an insult-heavy clash.

But it also raises risks for Tapper and Bash, who already have faced criticisms from Trump’s camp that they will not be fair in their moderation.

On Monday, CNN morning show anchor Kasie Hunt cut short an interview with Trump spokesperson Karoline Leavitt after she attempted to question the objectivity of Tapper and Bash.

Hunt said she wasn’t going to allow Leavitt to use her airwaves to insult her colleagues.

Trump’s campaign, which frequently targets mainstream media as an antagonist, has played up the fight.

Leavitt later appeared on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s podcast and said CNN took her off the air because it “[doesn’t] want spokespeople and defenders of the president to go on that same network and bring up [allegations of bias].”

CNN in a statement hours later defended their two leading anchors and dismissed such criticisms.

“Jake Tapper and Dana Bash are well respected veteran journalists who have covered politics for more than five decades combined,” the outlet said. “They have extensive experience moderating major political debates, including CNN’s Republican Presidential Primary Debate this cycle. There are no two people better equipped to co-moderate a substantial and fact-based discussion and we look forward to the debate on June 27 in Atlanta.”

CNN CEO Mark Thompson, who took over the sprawling cable news operation last fall, said during an interview this week his goal for Thursday night’s debate is for the two candidates on stage, not his network, to be in the spotlight.

“The fact that we got it was something of a moment for us,” he told The New York Times. “Much of the reaction of the public, the rest of the media and other politicians is going to depend on President Trump and President Biden, who are the stars of the show.”

Thompson also defended the format for the debate, which will be held without a studio audience, and the decision to mute microphones.

“It’s been done in a way, at least in principle, that is designed to get as much light as possible, and not to be overwhelmed with heat,” he said.

CNN has a lengthy history with Trump, who at one point posted social media images showing him as a WWE character battling another wrestler whose head was the CNN logo.

CNN during Trump’s first term was led by Jeff Zucker, the former NBC executive who brought “The Apprentice” to prime time.

More recently, the network sparked internal headaches and some external backlash with a town hall event it hosted with Trump last summer.

The May 2023 event earned the channel its biggest single night audience of 2023 but was dominated by Trump’s attacks on moderator Kaitlan Collins and his misleading statements about the 2020 election and ongoing legal troubles.

That town hall came at a time when Zucker’s successor, producer Chris Licht, was overhauling the network’s programming and making what skeptics warned was a thinly veiled attempt to win over more conservative viewers. Licht was fired weeks after the Trump town hall and replaced by Thompson.

People inside the network have described a palpable sense of nervousness and mounting pressure ahead of Thursday night.

“Nobody wants to repeat what happened last May,” one staffer at the network told The Hill this week. “It’s the most eyeballs we’re going to have all year, or anyone is going to have all year, so everyone is approaching it with extreme caution.”

Thursday’s debate will be simulcast on nearly every other cable and network news channel, setting up an opportunity for both candidates to reach tens of millions of people and adding to the scrutiny CNN is likely to face as it all plays out live.

“My prediction is there’s going to be huge interest,” said Frank Sesno, who worked at the cable news channel for years and now teaches journalism at the George Washington University. “Some of it will come from people who are drawn to train wrecks. It may not be positive, eager, ‘I-can’t wait-for-the-debate’ interest. But seeing these two, side by side, on a stage unscripted … would you really want to miss that?”

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