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Without Fact-Checking, A Presidential Debate Is Just TV

New Yorkers watch the 2024 Presidential Debate between Trump and Biden in New York City, United States on June 27, 2024.
Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images

Before Joe Biden and Donald Trump took the stage, CNN introduced a panel of undecided Michigan voters. They would have the privilege of holding their little approval-knobby things and registering their opinions in real time. It’s terrifying to think that this election will come down to people who haven’t formed a firm opinion on the question of Trump vs. Biden by June 27, 2024, and not much less terrifying to consider that these televised debates nominally exist to help voters make that decision. Nothing that came after that was any less unsettling.

CNN’s debate rules last night were oriented toward decorum, according to a statement delivered by Dana Bash and Jake Tapper before the candidates took the stage. The impression was of substitute teachers laying down the law in a classroom of naughty middle schoolers. Both candidates agreed to a set of rules for this debate ahead of time. There would be a certain amount of time allotted to each answer. No notes. No live audience to interrupt the speakers. The moderators would have and, if necessary, use a mute button. 

In the absence of maddening crosstalk and mayhem, the debate format left ample staggering space for Biden’s hoarse, lackadaisical, meandering answers through the evening. The muted microphones also meant that Trump wasn’t able to interrupt Biden, which had the impression of making him appear slightly more restrained. Trump still spoke in almost nonstop hyperbole and lies, but he did it with a forcefulness that made him seem at least alive, and filled the space allotted to him. Biden struggled to deliver complete sentences clearly; Trump vigorously and confidently said the most insane shit that any presidential candidate has ever said in such a forum.

Debates are a game of perception, and while CNN made a show of trying to focus on the substantive differences between the candidates—this is not a natural movement for cable news, and they didn’t do well at it—ultimately, as always, the evening was judged by which candidate performed better. It doesn’t matter that it’s untrue when Trump called Biden a Manchurian candidate, or that he said abortions took place post–birth under Roe, or asserted that he never called the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “very fine people.” There was zero pushback from the moderators on any of that, and there was also no live fact-checking on screen—there was nothing that took the former president’s words seriously enough to hold them to any kind of account as they were broadcast nationwide. 

The lack of real-time fact checking on air was a choice. CNN political director David Chalian told the New York Times that there wouldn’t be any live fact checking, and that the moderators would focus on “facilitating the debate between these candidates, not being a participant in that debate.” That would be great, provided this debate was not being held in cuckoo-bananas land, a place in which one candidate still thinks that he won an election that he in fact lost, and seems to truly believe that he can change reality by speaking his preferred version of it into existence at every opportunity. 

Biden’s performance was extremely lackluster, although the words he said were generally more true than false. Viewers who know the facts could (usually) navigate the president’s garbled delivery to hear that his answers were rooted in reality. Except for a few moments of personal sniping, the two were not so much debating as participating in parallel; there were not enough agreed-upon facts between the two for any kind of debate. The fact-checking notionally came later, during the panel conversations after the debate and online, as part of the after-the-debate programming that we masochistically also tuned into. They mostly talked about the performances there, too.

A big problem with this is that undecided voters are generally not people who are following real-time fact checking of the debate online, and they’re surely not sticking around for the analysis afterward. That stuff is for nerds like us, people who have cleared calendars and three screens going on every debate night. We know what we are looking for, and watch to see it. Undecided voters are watching the debate to help them decide. That’s the point of having the debate in the first place. This means that the decision to cordon off any fact checking to post-debate spin coverage and supplemental online material, which in this case amounts to a decision to allow all kinds of wild lies onto the air without the slightest challenge, is a dereliction of duty masquerading as civic facilitation. If it allowed the performers to perform unimpeded, it also permitted them to make those performances out of whatever fictions and slurs they deemed most useful. Without any fact checking, undecided voters are left making their decision based on who they felt made a more compelling case, or just who made their case more compellingly. Without any fact checking, that person was undoubtedly Trump. It’s the 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy all over again: Television viewers deemed Kennedy the winner, while radio listeners who missed Nixon’s sweaty visuals thought Nixon won. 

It doesn’t matter that every other word Trump said onstage was a lie. It doesn’t even matter if every news site and pundit on TV says so the next day. The moment in which those lies could have been pointed out to greatest effect was during the debate, and that moment has passed. The decision not to do so was not just the most basic journalistic malpractice—if the job is not to tell people what is true and what isn’t, I don’t know what it is—but very clearly a decision to prioritize a clean and orderly television production over that production’s ostensible civic purpose. If the broadcast is not going to engage with the things that are actually being said onstage, I just don’t know what we’re doing here. Or I guess I do: We’re just watching TV.

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