CNN is framing its GOP debate as entertainment first, policy later

An all-too familiar face appears, accompanied by its all-too familiar scowl: “I’m not going anywhere, folks,” Donald Trump says. A bell rings, as if to start the next round of a prize fight. Then action shots of the Republican presidential candidates flash across the screen to a heavy drum beat typical of action movie trailers. 

This advertisement by CNN dominated the network’s commercial breaks in the days before Wednesday night’s GOP primary debate, which the news organization will host at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Its rousing, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao-type flare was intentional, as the Los Angeles Times reported. “That was the idea,” CNN President Jeff Zucker told the Times. “This is Round 2 of a heavyweight bout.” 

The framing is mystifying at best. Trump’s spontaneity and vulgarity make him more compelling than his counterparts in the GOP race, to the point that CNN’s own journalists have openly remarked about the glut of media coverage. Trump’s politics-as-entertainment is inherent to his campaign. But rather than holding an important discussion that happens also to be captivating, CNN’s pre-debate promotions have openly framed Wednesday’s contest as entertainment. They are fueling an already out-of-control wildfire: The debate is not just a live event to highlight differences between presidential contenders, but rather a title fight between Trump and the world.

Representatives for CNN did not respond to requests for comment.

CNN has covered the run-up to the debate with wall-to-wall coverage, in some cases with a  breaking-news urgency. An on-screen clock has counted down the seconds until the start of the event.

Anchors, some broadcasting from the debate site in Simi Valley, California, have continued to find original ways to drum up excitement: “There will be fireworks here just two days from now,” John Berman said Monday; “One day till the great Republican showdown,” Ashleigh Banfield began her show Tuesday; “Folks are getting ready to rock ‘n’ roll on Wednesday night,” Brooke Baldwin added hours later. Wolf Blitzer’s Tuesday program started with a Trump montage—“I guess I’m going into a lion’s den,” the real estate magnate says. It cuts to Jeb Bush punching an open hand: “If someone comes at me—bam!—I’ll come back at them.”

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The first debate, hosted by Fox News in August, was indeed a blockbuster: It drew about 24 million viewers, making it the highest-rated cable news program of all time. And there were some substantive exchanges between candidates in the process. Trump used the occasion to cement his position as the GOP’s entertainer-in-chief. His continued ascent in the polls, dominance of media coverage, and tiffs with competitors are sure to draw a similarly huge audience on Wednesday.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, a respected interviewer who will be one of three moderators on Wednesday, has said that he aims to “pit candidates against the other specific candidates on the stage on issues where they disagree, whether its policy or politics or leadership.” That would be a fair strategy in most debates, especially given the pedigrees of Tapper and co-moderators Dana Bash, of CNN, and Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host. 

Trump, however, has rewritten the rules of engagement for this GOP field. And within that context, encouraging candidates to engage in one-on-one rhetorical combat only heightens the risk that the debate will devolve into a slugfest. CNN’s advertisements suggest this is not only possible, but probable.

CNN doesn’t need its tabloid framing to ensure that millions watch the event. The danger of such a slant is that it buys into the idea that politics and policy should take a backseat to theatrics. Its approach reflects poorly on a political press already chastised for sensationalism. And it could make it more difficult for the media to land legitimate punches of its own as the stakes continue to rise.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.