CNN, on the wane, bets big with first US presidential debate

CNN, on the wane, bets big with first US presidential debate

/ 04:42 PM June 25, 2024

CNN, on the wane, bets big with first US presidential debate

This combination of pictures created on March 06, 2024 shows former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump in Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 27, 2024 and US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2024.. Joe Biden and Donald Trump square off for a historic US presidential debate this week, with the stage set for what could be a pivotal moment in the 2024 race as millions of potential voters tune in. FILE PHOTOS/Agence France-Presse

NEW YORK — After taking a beating in the ratings from rivals Fox News and MSNBC, CNN is hoping that by hosting the first presidential debate of 2024, it can win back some cable news viewers.

The network, the first in history to earn sole broadcast rights for a presidential debate, offered competitors the chance to pick up its feed Thursday night, under certain conditions.


The CNN logo would have to appear onscreen for the duration of the event, and any ads promoting it would have to refer to the “CNN Presidential Debate,” according to the Los Angeles Times.


READ: Trump and Biden do battle in first US presidential debate

CNN declined comment when asked by AFP to confirm the details.

“CNN has had a tremendous opportunity dropped in its lap,” says Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University.

“This gives CNN a huge platform from which to re-establish itself as a news source in the minds of many Americans.”

In September 2020, more than 73 million people tuned in to watch the first debate between Joe Biden and then-president Donald Trump, across all channels.

Need for renewal

While CNN has been systematically outpaced by Fox News in terms of viewership for the last 22 years, it ceded second place to MSNBC in 2017.


READ: Biden and Trump agree rules for first election debate of 2024

The three networks have struggled to generate audience numbers since Trump left the White House, but CNN has by far been the most weakened, with a meager average daily audience of about 400,000 — one-third of its 2020 figures.

All the major broadcast and cable news networks have said they plan to show the CNN debate live.

“Not everybody will be watching on the CNN network. But they will be watching the journalists of CNN, they’ll be watching its production by CNN,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a journalism professor at Hofstra University.

“And if it goes well, and if the public responds well to the debate, that certainly will benefit CNN.”

Mark Feldstein, who teaches at the University of Maryland’s journalism school, said Trump would likely attack CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, as it would play well with his political base.

The former president repeatedly criticized CNN during his first White House bid, accusing its journalists of bias against him.

“With Trump, you never know what game he’s playing and whether this isn’t all potentially even an ambush for CNN,” so the Republican can say the “liberal media ganged up on him,” Feldstein warned.

Biased or fair?

For Lukasiewicz, the concessions won from the candidates by CNN, and by ABC for the second debate, are “important to controlling” the atmosphere.

For example, neither debate will feature a studio audience, meaning “there won’t be a cheering crowd to laugh… or to respond to the attacks that Donald Trump makes,” he explained.

The second major format change is that each candidate’s microphone will be cut if it is not their turn to speak, thereby making it harder for Trump to interrupt Biden, as he has done in the past, Lukasiewicz said.

McCall says Tapper and Bash will have to do their best to remain out of the fray, and not to insert themselves into the proceedings.

“It is important, however, for the moderators to not become pseudo-debaters,” he said.

READ: Biden and Trump suit up for first televised clash of 2024

“If they turn the forum into a dueling press conference, they will open themselves up to accusations of bias, probably from both sides of the political divide, but more likely from viewers on the right.”

CNN’s editorial bent has been a bit of a moving target since Trump was elected in 2016.

Under former boss Jeff Zucker, CNN adopted a pugnacious style, openly critical of Trump.

But after Zucker’s exit, Chris Licht upended the narrative, promoting more measured coverage without journalistic fireworks — upsetting part of the newsroom in the process.

Now his replacement Mark Thompson, who took over in summer 2023, has steadied the CNN ship but it still meanders somewhat editorially in an ultra-polarized media landscape that shifts with the political landscape.

“If CNN does a super job of hosting, it can demonstrate to the nation what a professional and fair news organization can do, and perhaps lure some people into the tent,” McCall says.

For Lukasiewicz, “there is still a public appetite for objectivity.”

He notes that all three traditional broadcast networks — NBC, ABC and CBS — still draw millions of viewers every night to their evening news programs.

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But he adds: “I’m just not sure on cable if people are really going to switch (channels) too much after the debate.”

TAGS: CNN, US elections

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