‘Post’ Script & CNN’s Debate Hangover

cnn presidential debate
The network had so successfully not been a part of the story that, in the aftermath, it almost no longer mattered that CNN had hosted the debate. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 28, 2024

On Thursday night, as Jake Tapper and Dana Bash brought CNN’s instant classic of a presidential debate to a close in Atlanta, executives and producers at the network breathed a collective sigh of relief. For the next two-plus hours, the network’s pundits would try to comprehend Biden’s disastrous, unspinnable collapse and convey the gravity and the magnitude of the Democratic panic to viewers—and, in fact, several panelists would remain on set for almost an hour after the cameras stopped rolling, discussing all the possible ramifications. (“There may have been tears by some,” one of the panelists told me.) But, for those who had been involved in programming the debate itself, 10:39 p.m. brought catharsis: They had fulfilled their mission, such as they saw it, and—crucially—they had not become a part of the story. 

Sure, somewhere amid the cacophony of the Defcon-1, five-alarm freak-out over Biden’s performance—the calls from his own loyalists to step aside, the rampant speculation of a brokered convention, and the tireless efforts by the MSNBC folks to remind viewers that, despite his relative composure, Trump had repeatedly lied—you could hear the faint din of the Keith Olbermann types blaming CNN for deciding to facilitate the debate, rather than fact-check it. It didn’t matter. There was only one story, and Jake and Dana—and CNN, more broadly—were earning plaudits for their capable moderation. They had made clear from early on that their job wasn’t to insert themselves and challenge either candidate—and, of course, they are not the ones running for office.