CNN Is Under Heavy Fire For This Debate Issue & It's A Doozy

When viewers tuned in to watch the first presidential debate of 2024 on CNN, what mattered most to them was the war of words between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. However, another battle was raging behind the scenes — some members of the press were furious over being unable to report on what Americans didn't get to witness with their own eyes and ears.

At risk of being lost in the deluge of discussions about Biden's worrisome health and Trump starting an argument about golf was the scolding CNN got from the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA). The network had denied even a single White House press pool reporter access to CNN's Studio D, where the debate was held, while Trump and Biden were trading barbs. This meant that CNN controlled the entire narrative around the debate; if something happened when the cameras weren't rolling, the public's sole source of that information would be CNN employees, such as moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. 

Explaining why this access is important, WHCA President Kelly O'Donnell said in statement (via the New York Post), "The pool is there for the 'what ifs?' in a world where the unexpected does happen." Another important responsibility of a press pool reporter is to share information with the public that the debate's coordinators might otherwise hide — in other words, denying the WHCA's request makes CNN look a bit shady. The network did make one tiny concession to the WHCA, but it didn't amount to much.

What the White House pool reporter witnessed during a commercial break

CNN allowed one pool reporter entry into the debate hall only when the first of two commercials aired, which gave the candidates and moderators a bit of a break. For Kelly O'Donnell, this tiny allowance was laughable. "That is not sufficient in our view and diminishes a core principle of presidential coverage," she said (via the New York Post). What that pool reporter witnessed was also a big nothing burger — there was no argument between Donald Trump and Joe Biden over whose hair was the most tragic, nor did they exchange niceties when the cameras weren't rolling. According to VOA, the reporter witnessed the pair doing and saying nothing.

In responding to criticism of its decision to limit the reporter's debate access so severely, CNN did not explain why it felt that it was important to do so. Instead, it suggested that the video feed members of the press pool would have access to was sufficient and added, "Following our traditional approach, CNN is providing access to the debate studio for a tight pool of photographers for the duration of the event and a larger group of photographers during a commercial break." But photographers are not reporters, and their lenses don't capture everything.

CNN was also slammed for its fact-checking fail

While the WHCA was angry with CNN for hogging the presidential debate pie and leaving them with crumbs, what angered many viewers the most about the network's handling of the debate was its fact-checking. Donald Trump arguably won the night for a few reasons. For one thing, Joe Biden had a cold, according to The Hill. The Atlantic writer Tom Nichols also suggested that Biden had worked too hard to get his facts straight ahead of the debate. "Biden was overprepared and fed a whole bunch of wonky data to respond to Trump's various accusations," he tweeted. Meanwhile, Trump was pretty much given free rein to spout off falsehoods because CNN did little fact-checking in real-time.

CNN went into the debate knowing that one of the candidates had a long history of lying — according to The Washington Post, Trump's mistruths numbered over 30,000 during his presidency — so it was inexcusable to not be prepared for him to serve the Americans a bunch of whoppers. Some critics on X were disappointed in CNN for doing such a disservice to its viewers. "There has never been a debate with less fact checking from the moderators than this one. Just a complete abdication of responsibility," wrote journalist Judd Legum. Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling added, "There's gonna be a heck of a lot of discussion about a lack of fact checking in this debate tomorrow...but it'll be way too late."