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How did CNN’s moderators do in the Biden-Trump debate? It almost didn’t matter that they were there

NEW YORK (AP) — To a large extent, it almost didn’t matter that Dana Bash and Jake Tapper were on stage.

The two CNN journalists prepared meticulously to moderate Thursday’s presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the first ever between a sitting president and his predecessor, and asked several sharp questions.

Not only were many of them ignored, but the impression that some Americans were left with about President Biden’s fitness for the job essentially had nothing to do with Bash and Tapper or their involvement in the program.

“There’s no question this was not what the Biden campaign wanted or needed,” said ABC’s Mary Bruce. After the debate, CNN’s John King pointed to his cell phone, saying he hadn’t seen anything like the concern expressed to him in text messages as the debate went on.

“There’s a full-on panic about this performance,” said NBC’s Chuck Todd.

The event, organized by CNN and broadcast over most of the country’s main news and broadcast networks, was the earliest general election debate ever, before the two candidates had been formally nominated by their parties.

Did the moderators play a role?

Tapper and Bash asked about the economy, the war in Ukraine, climate change, the border, election denial — a litany of issues that most Americans, in polls, say they are most concerned about heading into the 2024 election.

Their problem was that, more times than not, the questions were ignored as the two candidates continued to squabble at their own pace.

“You have 67 seconds left,” Tapper said to Trump when he didn’t address one. “The question was, what are you going to do to help Americans in the throes of (opioid) addiction right now to get the treatment that they need?”

“This does pertain to it,” Trump said, moving on to talk about open borders and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

At another point, when Bash asked Trump whether he would support the institution of a Palestinian state, Trump said, “I’d have to think a bit before we do that,” and went on to talk about NATO.

Bash also had to go back to Biden to ask a second time what he would say to Black voters who believed they hadn’t made enough progress under his administration, after he recited a handful of programmatic changes. She asked Trump three times about whether he’d accept election results if he lost.

They weren’t designed to be referees

CNN determined ahead of time that Tapper and Bash would be questioners, not umpires. They didn’t follow up questions — except to repeat those that weren’t answered — and left it to the politicians to try and fact-check. Each called the other a liar.

CBS’ Gayle King said later that the lack of fact-checking benefited Trump because he was able to seem more in control with his answers. “If you don’t know the facts, you’d think he was making a lot of sense,” she said.

CNN’s Daniel Dale sent out several fact-checks on social media during the debate, but television viewers would not be aware of them unless they happened to look for them. Per CNN rules, other networks carrying the debate were not allowed to break in with any commentary of their own until the debate was finished.

Heading in to the debate, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said that she did not envy the position in which Tapper and Bash were placed.

“The moderators at CNN have an impossible job,” she said, “and they are under nuclear hot scrutiny.”

CNN came under criticism before the debate by the White House Correspondents’ Association, which protested the network’s decision not to allow a pool text reporter into their studio to observe Biden and Trump off-camera. CNN said there was no room, although it promised to usher a reporter in briefly during one of the two commercial breaks.

The first debate between Trump and Biden in 2020 was seen by 73 million viewers, while the second had 63 million. Those were in the fall, when television viewership was generally up.

Following the debate, The Washington Post and The New York Times had nearly identical lead headlines. The Post: “Biden Struggles, Trump Deflects Questions.” The Times: “Biden Struggles as Trump Deflects Questions During Contentious Debate.”

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

David Bauder, The Associated Press