Tonight, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will face each other on CNN for the first scheduled debate of the 2024 presidential election. This year, things will be run differently: CNN will be entirely in charge. If history is any guide, things will not go well for democracy.

‘A fraud on the American voter’

Once upon a time, presidential debates were hosted by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, which set the terms and chose the moderators. But the national chairs of the two dominant parties formed the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and wrested control from the League in 1988. The LWV responded by accusing the parties of

perpetrat[ing] a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.

The result was, as FAIR repeatedly documented (e.g., 10/26/128/26/168/2/192/29/20), largely what the League predicted: few tough questions, most with a right-wing corporate framing, rarely reflecting the issues of most concern to voters. But even the CPD has lost its grip on the debates now, starting in 2022, when the RNC announced its distancing from the organization. This year, Biden signaled his own interest in working out a debate outside the normal CPD process.

Which brings us to the current situation, featuring two scheduled debates—on June 27 on CNN, and on September 10 on ABC—following rules agreed upon by the host network and the two candidates. CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate the first contest.

The public needs to fully understand the stakes of the 2024 election, and that can’t mean a blackout on Trump. But it does require incisive questions that speak to people’s real needs and concerns, and some way of offering real-time factchecking to viewers. CNN viewers are unlikely to get the former, and CNN has already promised not to supply the latter.

Unfit to host

Of the major nonpartisan news networks (i.e., excluding Fox), CNN is perhaps the least fit to host a presidential debate. In recent elections and primaries, it has repeatedly proved that it’s not an enlightened public the network is after, but ratings (e.g.,, 8/2/198/25/227/19/23).

In the most recent example, the network infamously hosted a town hall with Trump during the 2023 Republican primaries. That choice appeared to be entirely self-serving. After working to move the network rightward, then–chair Chris Licht had led CNN to what the Atlantic described as “its historic nadir,” in terms of ratings as well as newsroom morale. The Trump town hall was the big plan to turn the ship around.

The public needs to fully understand the stakes of the 2024 election, and that can’t mean a blackout on Trump.

Instead, it quickly proved to be an embarrassment that ultimately cost Licht his job. Trump turned the event into what came across as a campaign rally sponsored by CNN, spouting falsehood after falsehood and running roughshod over CNN host Kaitlan Collins in front of cheering fans. (The CNN floor manager instructed the audience that while applause was permitted, booing was not.)

Even in its town halls with Trump’s slightly less truth-challenged primary challengers, the network’s own post-event factchecks showed that CNN hosts—including Tapper and Bash—failed to counter major falsehoods in real time.

Reliance on right-wing talking points

Though Trump (who agreed to the ground rules and choice of host) has been pre-emptively complaining he won’t get a fair shake from such a “biased” outlet—biased to the left, he means—Tapper and Bash hardly have a record of asking left-leaning questions.

CNN didn’t host a presidential debate in 2020, but it did host Democratic primary debates. Beyond its ESPN-like introductions to the candidates and questioning style that seemed designed to foment conflict more than to inform, the network relied heavily on right-wing talking points and assumptions to frame its questions.

In one example, Tapper started off a 2019 Democratic primary debate by asking Bernie Sanders whether taking “private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans, in exchange for government-sponsored healthcare for everyone,” was “political suicide.”

In a 2016 Democratic debate, Bash questioned Hillary Clinton on her proposal for paid maternity leave—something every other industrialized nation in the world provides—with a decidedly antagonistic framing: “There are so many people who say, ‘Really? Another government program?’ Is that what you’re proposing? And at the expense of taxpayer money?”

Tapper’s take on the “public interest” doesn’t bode well for his performance this week.

After CNN‘s 2023 Trump town hall, Tapper argued that the event was “in the public’s interest.” But there’s no world in which offering a serial liar a town hall stuffed full of people instructed to cheer but not boo serves the public interest. Tapper’s take on the “public interest” doesn’t bode well for his performance this week.

On the central foreign policy issue of the year—Israel’s months-long assault on Gaza—Tapper and Bash both have exhibited a strong pro-Israel bias. It’s not a promising setup for a debate between a strongly pro-Israel candidate occasionally critical of the country’s right-wing government (Biden) and a strongly pro-Israel candidate aligned with that right wing (Trump).

And CNN, like its fellow corporate media outlets, is allergic to questions about many issues of critical importance to large numbers of viewers. In its first 2019 Democratic primary debate, CNN asked more non-policy questions—primarily about whether some candidates were “moving too far to the left to win the White House”—than questions about the climate crisis. Across two nights of debates, the network’s 31 non-policy questions overwhelmed those on key issues like gun control (11) and women’s rights (seven).

Factcheck abdication

The debate and its terms have been agreed to by both Biden and Trump. There will be no audience. The candidates’ microphones will be muted when it’s not their turn to speak. In a first for a presidential debate, there will be two commercial breaks during the debate. (It remains to be seen which giant corporations will be sponsoring this supposed exercise in democracy.)

What will this format offer viewers—and, more broadly, democracy? The microphone rule should help avoid the 2020 debate debacle, in which Trump’s incessant interruptions rendered the event virtually unwatchable. But Trump doesn’t just interrupt incessantly; he lies incessantly as well. Will Tapper and Bash factcheck every lie, even if it means doing so more often to Trump than to Biden?

Saving factchecking for after the debate won’t help the millions who tune out when the debate ends.

Shockingly, CNN isn’t even going to pretend to try. Political director David Chalian told the New York Times that a live debate “is not the ideal arena for live factchecking,” so instead the moderators would be “facilitating the debate between these candidates, not being a participant in that debate.” Factchecking will be reserved for post-show analysis. Meanwhile, moderators “will use all tools at their disposal to enforce timing and ensure a civilized discussion.”

On the one hand, Trump has made real-time factchecking essentially impossible, because the rate at which he puts forth falsehoods would require constant interruption. Of the 74 Trump debate claims checked by Politifact, only two were judged “true,” and seven “mostly true.” Across time and setting, 58% of Biden’s claims were judged at least “half true,” compared to 24% for Trump.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine how the public will be served by a “debate” featuring a notorious fabulist in which the moderators don’t even try to point out blatant lies. Saving factchecking for after the debate won’t help the millions who tune out when the debate ends. And you can hardly expect an opponent to be responsible for countering every lie Trump tells.

CNN has never been particularly good at factchecking (e.g.,, 10/4/1110/5/12). Now with a candidate and party that aggressively disdain facts and honesty, the network is virtually guaranteed to fail the public even more miserably—and with potentially graver consequences.

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