The Media Today

If we lose the presidential debates, they may not come back

April 12, 2024
Jim Bourg/Pool via AP

On Thursday, former president Donald Trump’s campaign called for more, and earlier, presidential debates—the latest salvo in a running debate over the debates that could lead to no debates at all.

Trump campaign co-managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates calling for the schedule to be shifted to “much earlier” than the current September and October dates, and suggesting as many as seven debates, up from the usual three. “The time to start these debates is now,” they declared.

The Trump campaign letter comes after reports that the five major TV news networks were working on a joint open letter calling on Trump and President Biden to publicly commit to debating.

“We, the undersigned national news organizations, urge the presumptive presidential nominees to publicly commit to participating in general election debates before November’s election,” executives from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC write in a draft of the letter obtained by the New York Times.

Some back-and-forth over how the debates will be conducted isn’t uncommon. But as I noted in February, this year it’s far from certain that these debates will happen at all. The Trump campaign’s letter appears to be less a serious proposal than political posturing aimed at pressuring the commission and making Biden look bad. There’s no way they’re going to debate seven times, and while his team is right that the growth in early voting means debates need to take place earlier than in years past, the commission has already scheduled the first debate two weeks earlier than last time. 

Biden’s team has so far refused to commit to debating Trump at all, and didn’t respond to a request for comment for this piece.

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And while Trump is painting himself as the pro-debate candidate—”I would fully accept any debate, anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” he told Fox News on Thursday—his recent track record suggests the opposite. He refused to debate any of his 2024 GOP primary foes, depriving them of a chance to turn the campaign into a real contest.

“Donald Trump was the significant front-runner for the entire race,” Brett O’Donnell, who was Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s debate coach, told me. “When he wasn’t in the debate, it wasn’t even like we were on the playing field, it was like we were fighting in the stands.”

Trump and his allies have been warring with the commission for years: He threatened for months to skip the 2020 debates, and in 2022, the Republican National Committee stopped working with the commission, claiming the bipartisan body that has governed debates since 1987 (and is co-headed by a former RNC chairman) was “biased” against the GOP. In their Thursday letter, Trump’s team complained that the commission had previously “ceded to the wishes of the Biden campaign on every front.”

The Trump campaign’s list of demands closely mirrors the ones they made in 2020. Trump threatened for a full year not to participate. Then, in June, his campaign requested that the commission either move up the debate schedule or add a fourth debate, arguing it was necessary because so many more voters would be casting their ballots early.

The 2020 debates already broke with historical precedent. The second of the three debates was canceled because Trump had COVID and refused to participate remotely.

Not everyone wanted Biden to debate then, either: Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker at the time, urged Biden not to “legitimize” Trump by debating, predicting he would “act in a way that is beneath the dignity of the presidency.”

In the past decade, it’s become more and more common for candidates in both parties to refuse to debate their opponents. Governors and senators have been quicker to duck debates, seeing only downside: it’s a lot easier to lose a debate than win one.

One Democratic strategist who’s been involved in dozens of statewide races (and asked to remain anonymous because of their current job) told me that the increasing level of public distrust in the institutions that put on debates—from media organizations to local universities and civic groups, like the League of Women Voters or Chamber of Commerce—means those groups can no longer pressure candidates into debating.

“There’s no entity with the leverage to force people to do it if they don’t want to do it,” the strategist said.

Strategists in both parties told me they think it’s more likely than not that Biden and Trump won’t end up debating this election. And while each side predicted it’d be the other’s guy who ends up refusing, they agreed that would be a bad thing for the country—and hard to reverse in future years.

That’s the thing about norms: once someone stops adhering to them, it’s a lot harder to put them back in place. And like so much of American politics, these unwritten rules only survive as long as both sides are willing to abide by them.

“I worry that it gives an excuse for future presidential candidates not to debate,” O’Donnell said. “They are extremely important.…They are an opportunity for all of America to really see their democracy in action.”

Other notable stories:

  • O.J. Simpson—the former football player who was acquitted of killing his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald L. Goldman in 1995, but was later found civilly liable for their deaths—has died of cancer. As the news filtered through, various commentators reflected on how Simpson’s police chase and subsequent murder trial proved a harbinger of America’s current media environment. “The murder case would show electronic media’s power to bring a country together and to rip it apart,” the TV critic James Poniewozik wrote in the New York Times. “What part of TV, in 1994 and 1995, wasn’t the O.J. Simpson trial?” Meanwhile, the academic Michael Socolow—who covered the Simpson story as an assignment editor at CNN—reshared a piece he wrote for CJR in 2019 on the difference between covering history and studying it later.
  • Recently, Cesar Conde, the chair of NBCUniversal’s News Group, has come in for criticism over his handling of NBC’s (ultimately abortive) hiring of Ronna McDaniel, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, as a paid pundit. Now the AP’s David Bauder examines a different controversy involving Conde: whether it’s appropriate for him to serve as a news executive while also being paid to sit on the corporate boards of Walmart and Pepsi. Conde has said that he recuses himself from any NBC reporting on the companies, though Bauder notes that his dual roles could at least present a perceived conflict of interest—and that CNBC, the business-focused network that Conde oversees, forbids its journalists and their spouses from owning stock for this reason.
  • Yesterday was a busy day for media jobs news. Axios appointed Aja Whitaker-Moore as its editor in chief. Elsewhere, Semafor’s Max Tani reported that The Intercept is set to name Ben Muessig, a former assistant managing editor at the LA Times, as its interim editor in chief following the recent departure of Roger Hodge. The Lever, an investigative newsroom founded by David Sirota, a former speechwriter for Bernie Sanders, is expanding, adding nine new staffers to grow its newsroom to nineteen people. And former staffers at WAMU—an NPR affiliate in Washington that ran the news site DCist before shutting it down this year—are creating a “worker-led, community-based” outlet.
  • According to WESA, an NPR affiliate in Pittsburgh, the local Teamsters union that has led an epic strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (which employs the union’s members as truck drivers) has voted to settle with the paper and dissolve itself. The decision has rankled four other unions at the paper that remain on strike, including one representing the Post-Gazette’s journalists. The president of that union accused the Teamsters of falling for a “divide and conquer strategy”; a Teamsters representative hit back that the newsroom union undermined the strike due to its members’ crossing the picket line.
  • And we learned yesterday that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died in prison in the country earlier this year, wrote a memoir prior to his death that will be published in October. The Times reports that Navalny wrote much of the book while convalescing in Germany following his attempted poisoning by Russian state agents in 2020, and that he finished it from prison after he was arrested on his return to Russia in 2021. While he was alive, Navalny dabbled in journalism, as we wrote after his death.

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Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.