Has CNN learned anything about debate moderating since 2012?

The questions to both candidates should be obvious

jake tapper dana bash cnn debate
Moderators and CNN hosts Jake Tapper and Dana Bash (Getty)
Share
Text
Text Size
Small
Medium
Large
Line Spacing
Small
Normal
Large

It’s been twelve years since the infamous moment when CNN’s Candy Crowley interjected herself into the presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, providing a live “fact check” which was, in reality, her factually inaccurate opinion. 

The moment was embarrassing enough that debate commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf would later describe their selection of Crowley as a moderator as a “mistake”; she was widely criticized for both inserting herself too much into the debate and letting it get out of hand.

Well, if you thought an Obama-Romney debate could go off the rails, just wait for this week’s…

It’s been twelve years since the infamous moment when CNN’s Candy Crowley interjected herself into the presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, providing a live “fact check” which was, in reality, her factually inaccurate opinion. 

The moment was embarrassing enough that debate commission co-chair Frank Fahrenkopf would later describe their selection of Crowley as a moderator as a “mistake“; she was widely criticized for both inserting herself too much into the debate and letting it get out of hand.

Well, if you thought an Obama-Romney debate could go off the rails, just wait for this week’s Joe Biden Donald Trump rematch — moderated this time around by another pair of CNN anchors, including the woman who replaced Crowley as chief political correspondent, Dana Bash. Bash and co-moderator Jake Tapper will already be equipped with advantages other moderators haven’t had, including shutting off the microphones of the president and former president in between questions. 

As he told Byron York, Trump agreed to these terms — including commercial breaks and no audience for the first time since 1960 — despite being aware they may benefit Biden:

“What they did, I’m pretty sure, is that they approached me with a debate that I couldn’t take,” Trump explained. “Dana Bash, Jake Tapper” — Trump referred to the CNN anchor as “Fake Tapper” throughout — “no audience, sitting down, originally sitting down, a dead debate, turn off the mikes when you’re not speaking so I can’t interrupt him… They knew I wouldn’t accept that because it was CNN, Dana Bash, Jake Tapper, and I like an audience and probably he doesn’t, who knows? So they thought they would present it, I would say no, and they would say we can’t debate because Trump said no. So I said yes before they even gave me the terms. So he got roped into it.”

It’s going to be a far cry from Lincoln-Douglass. In a situation where microphones are muted, the moderators become all the more powerful in limiting the scope and time of answers. So the questions Bash and Tapper ask should be judged more harshly, particularly if they veer off the topics Americans care about the most.

If CNN was truly in the American mainstream, the questions to both candidates should be obvious, particularly to Biden, who — unlike Trump — is actually in charge of the country at the moment, and has held the fewest press conferences and interviews of any president since Ronald Reagan. The regular Gallup poll on voter priorities, which asks an open unprompted question, is a clear indicator on this point: voter priorities are immigration, the economy, inflation, “poor leadership” and crime — all areas where both candidates have plenty of questions to answer. What you won’t find high on that list is anything having to do with abortion, guns, healthcare, the environment — and yes, Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Now of course, Bash and Tapper have a responsibility to ask about Trump’s many legal challenges and his conviction in New York, just as they also have a responsibility to ask Joe Biden about his knowledge of his son’s business affairs, and why he falsely framed the evidence from the laptop as an act of foreign interference in debates four years ago. And given the hot-button nature of the issues, a question about issues like abortion, Title IX,or the Supreme Court can be justified. But you could easily envision the moderators descending into a swamp pit of DC politics that occupies the airwaves of CNN every day — asking questions about things that just don’t matter to voters or viewers.

The number of people who identify immigration as the biggest problem facing the country is the highest since Gallup started asking the question forty years ago. The point is this: if Dana and Jake spend more time asking questions about January 6, Jack Smith and the 2020 election than they do about what each candidate would do to address the migrant crisis, the economy, inflation and affordability, they will once again like Crowley before them be tilting the debate — this time by shifting it away from the concerns of mainstream Americans. We already know what Trump and Biden think about those other things. Don’t waste our time with this nonsense.

On Thursday, we’ll find out if CNN learned anything in the past twelve years. Don’t get your hopes up.