The AP's Analysis of This Week's Debate is Really... Something

AP Photo/Chris Seward

Anticipation is building around Thursday's scheduled debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Much of the focus has centered on the biggest questions regarding the candidates. Will Donald Trump be able to control his temper and focus on the contrast between his record and Biden's? Will Joe Biden be able to stay awake for ninety minutes and not wander off the stage in a cloud of confusion? But some people, including those in the legacy media, are also focusing on the other participants, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. The Associated Press published a rather remarkable article looking at the responsibilities resting on the shoulders of the moderators as well the pressure that CNN is under to deliver something that will boost their badly slumping ratings. They may have to be prepared to do this multiple times if the Commission on Presidential Debates is now a thing of the past. 

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Joe Biden and Donald Trump won’t be alone at Thursday’s debate. Moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper of CNN will be on camera, too, and there’s a lot on the line for their network as it fights for relevance in a changing media environment.

CNN has hosted dozens of town halls and political forums through the years, but never a general election presidential debate, let alone one so early in a campaign. No network has.

“This is a huge moment for CNN,” said former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, now a media and public affairs professor at George Washington University. “CNN has to reassert itself. It has to show that it led a revolution in news before and can do it again.”

The AP notes that fewer and fewer people are relying on cable news networks in an era when people have so many other outlets they can access online. Among those who do still watch cable news regularly, CNN is faring poorly, trailing both Fox News and MSNBC by significant margins. Their latest ratings showed them averaging 535,000 viewers during prime time. That is barely half of what MSNBC drew and only a little more than one-quarter the size of Fox's audience. It also represents a 17% decrease from June of last year for CNN.

CNN's VP called the debate "hugely consequential." The network needs to find a way to remind people that they were an early innovator in television news and that they can still deliver the goods under pressure. The problem is, they aren't going to have an exclusive audience. As part of the final negotiations, CNN agreed to let the other major news networks carry the debate, provided they don't add in their own commentary during the event or cut away for additional commercial breaks. So everyone will still be viewing CNN's set and seeing their logo and anchors no matter which channel they tune in to. But that's not what matters to the advertisers. If CNN only draws its usual Thursday evening audience and everyone else is watching on Fox or MSNBC, it may not wind up doing them all that much good.

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Perhaps the biggest challenge facing CNN right now is its own people. Everyone is going to be watching how Tapper and Bash handle themselves every bit as much as they listen to what Biden and Trump have to say and how they perform. There is an almost universal perception on the right that this is going to be a three-on-one dogpile, with the odds stacked against Trump. If that's what winds up happening, why would any Republican or conservative ever agree to do a debate on the network again? 

Nobody is interested in seeing reporters serving up a bunch of softballs to Joe Biden because we see that every time he makes a rare appearance before the press. But if Tapper and Bash ask Biden too many difficult questions or call him out on his record, potentially leading to a stumble by the President, their liberal audience will be furious. That could tank their ratings even further. The moderators are going to be between a rock and a hard place on Thursday night. I normally don't stay up that late, but I'm planning to catch at least part of this show just to get a sense of how it's being handled and how durable Biden is. 

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David Strom 12:40 PM | July 23, 2024
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