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CNN presidential debate marks a pivotal moment for the network as it hopes to reverse its fortunes

CNN  —  CNN on Thursday will do something no network has done in more than 35 years – host its own general election presidential debate. It is a pivotal moment, not just for the country as it picks a new president, but also for CNN — with a new leader at the helm of the news network that has been beset by declining television viewership as it urgently embarks on a major newsroom overhaul to embrace its digital future. Thursday night’s presidential debate, a marketing coup for CNN and its new chief executive, Mark Thompson, will offer the network a bright spot – and expectations of record ratings, even if viewers end up watching the debate on other networks. No matter where viewers tune in to watch the primetime matchup between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, it will be clear this is a CNN debate. As a public service, CNN has allowed other networks to air the event, so long as they agree to the network’s rules over how the event is promoted and re-broadcast. Rival networks, for example, have agreed to use CNN in the programming title and keep the red CNN logo on screen throughout the debate. For CNN, the branding boost from the debate may provide a much-needed shot in the arm. Over the last year, CNN’s television viewership has fallen, regularly settling into third place behind MSNBC and the right-wing talk channel Fox News. Last week, CNN total viewership averaged fewer than 500,000 in primetime, and 80,000 in the advertiser-coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic, according to Nielsen. The declining viewership trend is not unique to CNN. But it has notably taken hold during breaking news events, once seen as the network’s bread and butter, when general audiences turned to the cable channel to watch unfolding coverage. CNN is also looking to move past previous missteps. Last year, under then-network chief Chris Licht, the network hosted a live town hall with Trump, in which the former president unloaded a host of lies and insulted moderator Kaitlan Collins as an audience applauded and cheered. Licht was later fired after a brief but tumultuous tenure. Thursday’s debate offers Thompson and the network’s executives the chance to reset the reputation of a network that has long defined itself as “the most trusted name in news.” Thursday’s debate will pose a high-stakes test for Thompson and the network’s executives as they go it alone without the independent Commission on Presidential Debates, making key decisions about how the politically charged showdown will appear for the millions expected to tune in. A break in tradition CNN’s debate will include some shifts in tradition, including two commercial breaks during the roughly 90-minute event, a first since the Commission on Presidential Debates took over the process more than 35 years ago. Other networks are also free to sell their own advertising but cannot put up their own commentators or anchors during the breaks. There will be no live audience this time, and the candidates’ microphones will be muted while the other is speaking. The podiums will also be eight feet apart, much closer than the last Trump-Biden debate in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when they were positioned 12 feet apart. It’s also the earliest a general election debate has ever been held, coming weeks before either candidate is formally nominated at their party’s conventions. “That’s by design,” CNN political director David Chalian said. “The Biden campaign was certainly interested in an earlier debate, in part because I think they see a target universe of voters that they’re trying to reach who aren’t engaged in this election.” Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said he was “shocked” by how early the debate was taking place in the campaign. The commission, which has sponsored the debates since the 1980s, “regrettably announced” Monday that it was cancelling its debates for the 2024 election that had been scheduled for September and October. “The Biden-Harris Campaign informed the Commission that President Biden will not agree to debate under the sponsorship of the Commission during the 2024 general election campaign,” it said. Instead, both candidates have agreed to a second debate in September hosted by ABC. This isn’t the first time the commission’s role in the debates has been challenged. In 2000, then Gov. George W. Bush challenged then Vice President Al Gore to three debates – one by the commission, and two other ones to be hosted by CNN and NBC. But in the end, Bush relented, and the candidates debated each other three times in the span of eight days in commission-sponsored debates. Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of the book “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail,” said he’s an “aficionado” of the debate commission because of that history. “Presidential debates have a long history of being tampered with by the campaigns, and the commission over its many decades did an excellent job circumventing the political shenanigans and institutionalizing presidential debates as an expectation rather than something that might or might not take place depending on the candidates’ whims and poll standings,” Schroeder said. A new format – and few fact checks While both Biden and Trump have agreed to the terms of CNN’s debate, including the format, rules and moderators, the Trump campaign has spent the days leading up to Thursday assailing the moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, and questioning their objectivity. The move, a page out of the Trump media playbook, is a repeat of the 2020 campaign, when Trump also attacked the moderators of the general election debates. “Trump may complain about CNN, but he was quick to accept their sponsorship, so I believe that speaks for itself,” Schroeder said. “To me it just sounds like whining,” he added. “For sure, there is an element of trying to ‘work the refs’ in advance of the event, but I think most people are smart enough to see that for what it is.” One thing that will not be a major feature of this debate: fact checking. “What we want to make sure that we do here, our role here, is to facilitate, to moderate a debate between these two candidates,” Chalian said. “Not for Jake and Dana to become participants in that debate, but to make sure that President Biden and former President Trump have the ability, have the time and space to get their visions out to the American people on these issues that are top of mind for them.” That means it will be mostly up to the candidates to try to correct the record on stage should their rival push lies or misinformation, a particularly thorny challenge given Trump’s lengthy history of using major platforms to unleash falsehoods. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for moderators to fact-check during a live debate,” Schroeder said. “If there’s a clear-cut issue that can be dispensed within five seconds – like a candidate claiming the sky is not blue – then that’s easy enough to handle, but most issues are a lot more complex than that and cannot be resolved in real time on an immediate basis.” CNN, for its part, plans to offer a fact-check of the candidates’ claims following the telecast. While CNN and ABC are hosting the debates this election season, Fahrenkopf said he believes the 2024 debates are merely a hiccup in the commission’s long history, and that they’ll be back to sponsoring the debates for the next campaign. “There are other ways to do things and we’ll look at it, and maybe (the CPD) will learn something from it,” he said. But with the candidates moving to circumvent the commission and its rules, some critics have suggested it could eventually result in highly partisan actors hosting the debates in the future. But Schroeder said he doesn’t believe that Thursday’s event will lead to that possibility, since each campaign still must sign off on the terms of any debate. For now, he said, there are still “enough mainstream news organizations.”