CNN Gets a Presidential Debate — and a Much-Needed Win

Tom Brenner for The Washington Post
Lecterns on the stage during the Republican presidential primary debate hosted by CNN in Des Moines in January.

For a network that recently ran a countdown clock for the White House correspondents’ dinner, CNN finally has a genuine political spectacle – with national and international implications – worth ticking down to.

Wednesday’s surprise announcement that CNN would be the host of an early-summer debate between President Biden and former president Donald Trump – circumventing the traditional fall matchups – is being hailed as a major win for a network that badly needed one.

When CNN chief executive Mark Thompson got word that the campaigns had accepted the network’s pitch, he was minutes away from walking onstage to deliver a presentation to corporate advertisers – and rapidly amended his speech so he could share the happy news.

CNN lately has dealt with flagging ratings and morale, just under a year since Thompson’s predecessor, Chris Licht, was ousted as CEO.

Winning such a high-profile debate, with all its possible complications, “might be a case of the dog catching the car when all is said and done,” said a veteran producer at the network who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment. But if CNN had missed out on this opportunity, “it would have been a disaster for Mark and the management team, and a serious hit on morale network-wide.”

The campaigns also confirmed that they have agreed to a Sept. 10 debate on ABC. The Biden campaign told The Washington Post on Wednesday that they had turned down a Trump offer for a third debate hosted by Fox News in October.

“It’s hugely valuable for CNN because it helps to enforce the brand as mutual territory, which no one else owns,” said Jonathan Klein, former president of CNN U.S. “They’ve been trying so hard to establish or reestablish that brand identity, which was always so crucial to the success of the network.”

The announcement was also well-timed for CNN’s annual pitch to advertisers, who want to be associated with media companies that have broad support and relevance without the baggage of excessive partisanship, he added.

It’s a particularly big win for Thompson, who started at CNN in October. While he has talked about the need for CNN to embrace the digital era and break away from the strictures of traditional television, he has thus far made few tangible changes to the network’s lineup or overall strategy.

Staffers are still waiting to see whether Thompson tweaks the network’s prime-time lineup or introduces new digital projects. Thompson on Wednesday announced plans for verticals dedicated to coverage of topics such as climate, technology and wellness.

While the fall general-election debates traditionally organized by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debate were simulcast across all major networks, CNN’s debate will be aired only on CNN channels, including the network’s international and Spanish-language arms – a move certain to boost the network’s ratings. Some 73 million people watched the first debate of the 2020 election cycle.

CNN laid out the terms to both the Trump and Biden campaigns Wednesday morning, and both agreed, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to comment. There were no negotiations.

The network said that veteran anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will serve as moderators. The pair were seen as the likely choice by many at the network, though other names – such as anchor Anderson Cooper or prime-time host Kaitlan Collins, or even Chris Wallace – were floated as possibilities.

CNN faced extensive criticism in May 2023 for hosting a town hall with Trump that devolved into a conspiracy-laden pep rally for the former president, replete with a partisan crowd that jeered Collins.

This event, the network hopes, will be different. Four years ago, then-Fox News anchor Wallace moderated the first debate of the presidential cycle. It quickly devolved into chaos, with Wallace struggling to contain the cross-talking candidates – particularly Trump.

At the time, Bash called that debate a “s— show.” Next month, she will get a chance to do better.