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This week's televised debate is crucial for Biden and Trump - and for CNN as well

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.”

As a television network, CNN is struggling at a time many consumers are cutting off cable and most news outlets wonder if the campaign will ignite consumer interest.

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Those that remain have expressed a clear preference for opinion programming. Fox News Channel has averaged 2.14 million viewers in prime time this month, with MSNBC at 1.22 million and CNN at 525,000, according to the Nielsen company. That's down 17% from last June for CNN.

CNN's chairman and CEO, Mark Thompson, has been with the company for less than a year and has spoken more about the internet than television as an opportunity for growth. Yet it means something that both campaigns chose CNN for the first debate. A well-run, illuminating event can open some eyes and remind people of CNN's legacy as the first all-news television network. If it goes off the rails, that's a stain that could take years to wash away.

“This is a hugely consequential moment in this campaign,” said David Chalian, CNN's vice president and political director. “It's the earliest presidential debate ever. It's obviously a huge privilege and a huge responsibility for CNN to host it.”

Looking hard for more viewers

It's possible — even likely — that CNN won't even have the biggest American audience on Thursday.

Choosing public service over pure profit, CNN offered to let other networks carry the debate feed; ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, PBS and C-SPAN will all do so. The other networks also have the right to sell their own ad time during the two commercial breaks.

The networks had to agree to CNN's rules — they must keep CNN's insignia onscreen and can't interrupt with their own commentators while the debate airs. Internationally, only CNN is carrying it.

The event, in an Atlanta studio, won't have a live audience. That was important to the Biden campaign but also to CNN. The network's town hall with Trump in 2023 was panned in large part because of the presence of Trump partisans.

CNN will also control a mute button, to turn a candidate’s microphone off when his opponent is talking. That's also reactive; Biden and many viewers were frustrated by Trump's frequent interruptions during the first of two debates between them in 2020.

When he conducted an unscientific poll among listeners to his SiriusXM radio show, Michael Smerconish said that 90% were in favor of the “mute” button. But Smerconish, who also hosts a weekend show on CNN, counts himself among the 10% who don't like the idea.

“You run the risk that the debate will become an antiseptic experience,” missing some good give-and-take, Smerconish said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Stay tuned, though. Chalian, who would not say who would be in control of the mute button, said an opponent's voice may still be picked up if he pipes up. It just won't be the dominant voice.

The network will not attempt to fact-check the candidates in real time, he said.

“Obviously, if there is some egregious fact that needs to be checked or the record needs to be made clear, Jake and Dana can do that,” he said. “But that's not their role. They are not here to participate in this debate. They are here to facilitate a debate between Trump and Biden.”

Will CNN offer a fair forum?

Well before the debate, Trump and his supporters have been putting forward the notion that because of CNN's presence, it won't be a fair fight. At a campaign rally where he denounced “fake Tapper,” Trump said that he would be debating three people instead of one — even though his campaign agreed in advance to the rules and moderators.

On CNN Monday, the network's Kasie Hunt cut off an interview with Trump press aide Karoline Leavitt after she repeatedly attacked the moderators.

“Our side has zero expectations that this is going to be a fair debate,” said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center. “When you watch Tapper and Bash anchor, you get the distinct impression that you're not going to get a fair debate.”

What Graham will be watching for: How many times will the moderators interrupt Trump and how many times do they stop Biden?

To a large extent, the attitude speaks to how CNN is boxed in commercially. Egged on by Trump, many of his supporters perceive CNN as biased against them, not as a network that follows the facts. And if you oppose Trump and want to see your view reflected, MSNBC is a more satisfying destination.

“Our job is simply to make sure that we are best prepared to facilitate and moderate the debate between the candidates,” Chalian said. "That is our focus. I really try not to pay too much attention to the pre-spin or post-spin. I'm really focused on the debate itself.”

Days before the event, a keep-your-head-down-and-work attitude seems to be how he's dealing with a pressure-filled event that could choke you if you let it.

“Let's be clear,” he said. “The stakes are highest for Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They're the participants in this debate.”

___

David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.

David Bauder, The Associated Press