Biden Bombed, But CNN Debate Moderators Set a New Benchmark for Cynicism

While the debate was a nightmare for team Biden, the moderators gave Trump’s lies free rein—and ensured that it wasn’t much of a debate at all.

Adam Johnson

U.S. President Joe Biden and Donald Trump participate in the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After the first 2024 presidential debate wrapped up last night, seemingly all the pundits and commentators could talk about were the rumblings from inside the Democratic Party about President Biden potentially backing out of the race, given what appears to be almost unanimous consensus he failed to combat Donald Trump in any meaningful way. 

In the hours following the debate, the liberal commentariat and even Democratic strategists finally began to acknowledge Biden’s deep limitations as a candidate, pointing to his weak, meandering responses and a series of gaffes, including inadvertently saying at one point, we finally beat Medicare.” And while there will no doubt be plenty more ink spilled on the topic of Biden’s incoherence and inability to effectively communicate over the next 48 hours, we must not lose sight of just how shoddy and useless CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash were at the most basic tasks of moderating a political debate. 

At the risk of doing an, Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” it’s useful to document how conservative and facile these presidential debates are, because they serve as a useful window into mainstream media priorities — they distill what the corporate press thinks is important and what ideological assumptions they carry around in their nominally objective and above-the-fray status as Serious News People. Let’s look at the worst elements of last night’s debate:

Tapper and Bash never bothered fact checking Trump’s torrent of completely disprovable lies. 

This one seems obvious and was a complaint leveled by just about every single Democrat partisan last night. And you know what? They’re right. 

The cottage industry that emerged post-2016 of fact-checking Trump’s typical deluge of lies can sometimes seem underwhelming as a tool against his particular brand of far-right demagoguery. But one context where it could be of some actual utility — namely because it involves confronting Trump in person rather than passively playing hall monitor after the fact — is during a live presidential debate. Alas, despite Trump spewing dozens of clear-as-day, disprovable lies, CNN anchors Tapper and Bash did not push back on any of them. 

New York Times reporter Reid J. Epstein claims this was the format the Biden team agreed to, but certainly there has to be some way Tapper or Bash could, after Trump tells the audience the sky is magenta, inform the audience that it is, in fact, blue. Assuming this is impossible, one wonders why this would be a format CNN would submit to at all, assuming that maintaining a modicum of basic journalistic norms was something the network cared about.

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It was a surreal sight and one that, no doubt, further fuels voters’ record cynicism: Time and time again, Trump said patently false things about inflation, alleged killer immigrants, an unnamed Virginia governor” killing newborn babies, and everyone on stage just… moved on. Obviously this burden to push back also lies with Biden, who came off listless and, at times, downright absent. But CNN could have interjected at least a handful of times to correct Trump’s completely alternate reality. Yet they seemingly, either by design or incompetence, had no interest in doing so. 

The questions were loaded with right-wing premises.

Per usual with moderator Tapper, the audience was fed a series of questions loaded with right-wing premises — namely on the topics of immigration, Social Security and the national debt and deficit. 

Tapper’s question about immigration was dripping with racist contempt, presenting undocumented migrants as nothing more than burdens on society with no humanity or constituency in the race at all. President Biden, a record number of migrants have illegally crossed the southern border on your watch,” Tapper kicked off the question, overwhelming border states and overburdening cities such as New York and Chicago, and in some cases causing real safety and security concerns. Given that, why should voters trust you to solve this crisis?”

Under this framing, immigrants are simply considered dangerous criminals (“real safety and security concerns”) who overwhelm” and overburden” the United States, and this is a crisis” that naturally requires further militarizing our border. The fact that study after study shows undocumented migrants commit less crime than the U.S. population in general was, of course, left unmentioned. That the migrants Tapper is euphemistically insisting we solve” for are actual humans simply doesn’t factor in. According to the International Organization for Migration, the United States-Mexico border is the world’s deadliest land route, with 686 deaths and disappearances of migrants on the southern border in 2022 alone. Making their trek more difficult, more militarized and more dangerous will no doubt spike these numbers, but this cruel reality doesn’t really register to CNN — or, for that matter, either parties. But, once again, unwanted humans coming into the United States are not given a human face, they are simply a crisis” that needs to be solved” through whatever unseemly means our security state deems fit. 

Just the same, on the issue of the deficit and Social Security, Tapper continued his long-time embrace of right-wing austerity framing and demanded our electeds solve a problem that many prominent experts insist isn’t really a problem at all. Over the last eight years, under both of your administrations, the national debt soared to record highs,” Tapper mugged to the camera. And according to a new non-partisan analysis, President Trump, your administration approved $8.4 trillion in new debt. While so far, President Biden, you’ve approved $4.3 trillion in new debt.” (Left unmentioned: There was a once-in-a-century pandemic that killed over one million Americans during that period, the economic consequences of which could only be mitigated with massive deficit spending.) 

Tapper would at least frame the question to Trump as an issue of tax cuts. But then later, instead of asking how Social Security could be expanded or improved, Tapper echoed the long-popular right-wing talking point of cutting Social Security to save it from some alleged imminent insolvency: If nothing is done to Social Security, seniors will see their benefits cut in just over 10 years. Will you name tonight one specific step that you’re willing to take to keep Social Security solvent?”

Biden, thankfully, said raising taxes on the wealthy. But this didn’t satiate Tapper’s thirst for austerity. Are there any other measures that you think that would be able to help keep Social Security solvent, or is just — is that one enough?”

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden talk to moderators CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash following the CNN Presidential Debate at the CNN Studios on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

One could almost see the desperation in Tapper’s eyes for Biden to discuss cutting benefits to the elderly and poor. Biden didn’t take the bait, but it’s worth noting that the premise that Social Security will somehow run out of money in 10 years” is highly contestable. It is an assertion made by pro-austierty, billionaire-funded think tanks like Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that hide their conservative agenda behind meaningless labels like non-partisan.” Several experts dispute their findings and reframe the issue to focus on the need to expand Social Security, for example, by requiring the rich to pay a more equitable share.

The smarmiest, most bad-faith question of the night came when Tapper tried to lob a gotcha at Biden by conflating Democrats’ criticism of Trump and his circle of sycophants and criminals with Trump voters, as such, in a rather precious attempt to paint Biden as some kind of bully going after everyday backers of the former president. President Biden, you have said, quote, Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy.’ Do you believe that the tens of millions of Americans who are likely to vote for President Trump will be voting against American democracy?” 

It’s difficult to fully describe how cynical this question is. Clearly, Biden was referencing Trump and those in the GOP who enable him, not Ma and Pa diner owners in rural Virginia. What kind of response was Tapper hoping to get here, exactly? Politicians can’t describe the corrupt and anti-democratic nature of their opponents—even ones who actively worked to overthrow the last election less than four years ago—without bad-faith pundits transferring this criticism on to literally everyone of their voters? What is Tapper even talking about here? A bafflingly fatuous attempt at a gotcha. 

Genocide in Gaza was treated as a small matter in need of sorting out, not an urgent moral disaster.

Bash did ask about the U.S.-backed genocide being carried out by the Israeli military in Gaza, but phrased it in sterile terms. Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than a thousand people and taking hundreds of hostages,” Bash began her question. Among those held and thought to still be alive are five Americans. Israel’s response has killed thousands of Palestinians and created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

So thousands of Palestinians” have been killed by Israel, rather than the actual number which is, at a minimum, 38,000, and is likely much, much higher. Bash did nothing to complicate or dispute the White House’s false premise that it put forward a proposal to resolve this conflict,” when they repeatedly lied about Israel signing off on the proposal and refused to use any actual leverage to pressure Israel. Trump, meanwhile, said in the debate Israel should finish the job” in Gaza.

It seems clear that the issue of “Gaza” was a box to check for the network and little more.

The unfolding and ongoing genocide in Gaza was given a mere three minutes, and the candidates just moved on afterward. One would think it was a question about tax cuts or zoning laws, not one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. Throw in the fact that Trump used Palestinian” as a slur and the moderators didn’t acknowledge — much less push back against — this gross racism, and it seems clear that the issue of Gaza” was a box to check for the network and little more. 

Poverty, homelessness and labor remain non-issues in presidential debates. 

While the debate did feature questions about inflation, the wealth gap between Black and white voters, and the impact of rising childcare costs, it largely ignored the issues of poverty, homelessness and organized labor. Indeed, the words poverty,” union,” poor,” labor” or homelessness” were not uttered once by anyone on the debate stage. The economy” was, per usual in corporate media, presented as an abstraction that mostly impacts the middle class” or the stock market. Those at the bottom rung of our society were given rare mention, and certainly no sustained focus. Despite a surge in labor enthusiasm and high-profile strikes, organizing campaigns and contract fights throughout the country, neither of the moderators felt the need to ask either candidate about the impact of these labor battles on ordinary people, and how presidential candidates plan to protect workers. 

Again, all the talk will no doubt be about the meltdown in top Democratic circles over Biden’s performance. But last night CNN displayed the fundamental problems with corporate media in one debate: They let blatant lies go unchallenged, were blasé about an ongoing genocide, tried to throw out limp gotcha questions rather than push back on substance, and almost entirely ignored the plight of the poor and working class.

Adam H. Johnson is a media analyst and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast.

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