CNN’s facts-optional debate moderation is a gift to the liar


One candidate in Thursday’s presidential debate is an irrational, compulsive liar, and the other is not.

By declaring ahead of time that there will little or no live fact-checking, CNN is telling its world audience that it doesn’t give a damn about the difference — and that whether someone lies or not is irrelevant to whether they should be president.

It’s yet more normalization of the deeply abnormal. News organizations are supposed to help inform the public. But by letting Donald Trump know he can lie without the threat of consequences, CNN is enabling the spread of toxic disinformation, and doing so for profit.

It also puts an unfair burden on President Biden, who can either use up his time refuting Trump’s lies, or let them go unrebutted.

Keep in mind that the last time CNN hosted a major political event, Trump didn’t just lie with impunity he also gratuitously insulted the CNN host, Kaitlin Collins, and riled up the ravening, hooting audience of supporters CNN had invited.

One might have hoped that the new regime at CNN would have learned something from the outrage that debacle generated, including from within CNN itself. What CNN’ers made clear in the aftermath is that in the Trump era, standing up for the truth requires journalists to engage in behavior that looks to one side like you’re taking the other. You have no choice.

The obvious takeaway should have been for CNN to mandate an on-set fact-checking desk every time it allows Trump to be live on the air going forward, including Thursday night.

Yes, at least there will be no live audience this time, and CNN producers will mute microphones when it’s not someone’s turn to speak.

But no live fact-checking.

David Chalian, CNN’s political director, told New York Times reporter Michael Grynbaum over the weekend that the debate “is not the ideal arena for live fact-checking.” He said moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper would instead focus on “facilitating the debate between these candidates, not being a participant in that debate.” Fact-checking, he said, would come after the telecast (to a fragment of the audience).

AFP reported that CNN “does not plan to fact-check candidate statements in real time — even if Trump repeats the baseless charge that the 2020 election was stolen from him.”

Chalian was a bit less adamant in an interview with the AP’s David Bauder, so maybe there’s still some hope.

“Obviously, if there is some egregious fact that needs to be checked or the record needs to be made clear, Jake and Dana can do that,” Chalian told Bauder.

Sadly, Chalian had this to add: “But that’s not their role. They are not here to participate in this debate. They are here to facilitate a debate between Trump and Biden.”

And please remember that fact-checking Trump is not hard. He repeats the same lies over and over again.

Tapper and Bash don’t have to make up responses on the fly, they simply need to be prepared with responses to the lies he is most likely to utter.

And here is where those after-the-fact fact checks (that nobody reads) are actually useful. CNN producers should study them closely, starting with their own at CNN, but also including those at the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Politifact, and

Trump’s first and foremost lie, of course, is that he won the 2020 election.

When he says that, it’s imperative that Tapper or Bash respond with something like “The evidence is overwhelming that Joe Biden won the 2020 election fair and square. Why do you continue to lie about this?”

Similarly, when Trump says inflation is “as high as 50 percent,” they should correct him. (The Consumer Price Index, has increased by about 20 percent since January 2021, compared to 7.4 percent during Trump’s presidency.)

Or when he says “One hundred percent of the jobs created have gone to illegals” they should point out that the Biden economy has added more than 15 million jobs since January 2021, the considerable majority going to native-born workers.

Or when he says “They want to quadruple your taxes” they should say that while some of the Trump tax cuts on high-income earners and corporations would be eliminated in a second Biden term, Biden does not support raising taxes on people making under $400,000 a year.

Or when Trump says he cut insulin costs and Biden didn’t, they should make it clear that Biden ensured that all 3.4 million-plus insulin users on Medicare got $35-per-month insulin, a much more effective move than Trump’s voluntary cap.

Or when Trump claims that “millions” of immigrants came illegally from jails and mental facilities, they should call that out as pure fantasy.

The list is long, but not endless. A few index cards would do it. And the debate wouldn’t be an embarrassment for CNN.


  1. I remember the days when networks provided immediate fact-checking on debates! And when it rained lemonade and we all rode around on zebras. (Am I the only one who has ever seen a presidential debate???)


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