CNN nabbing presidential debate deemed a coup for cable network

The debate being staged in Atlanta on June 27 evokes the cable network’s origins.

CNN has been home to plenty of bad news the past couple of years: shrinking ratings, management upheaval and key anchors losing jobs.

But the network can take a victory lap Wednesday for snagging the first presidential debate of 2024 on June 27. And in a move that should boost morale for the 1,000 or so Atlanta-based CNN employees, President Joe Biden and his presumptive Republican opponent and former President Donald Trump will debate in a TV studio at Techwood campus in Midtown Atlanta.

“This reinforces CNN’s place as a premier destination for the biggest news stories,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent, anchor, and Washington bureau chief, who is the current executive director of the George Washington University Alliance for a Sustainable Future.

Former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden will participate in two debates this year, to be aired by CNN. They're seen here during the presidential debate on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

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While hosting the debate in a battleground state like Georgia is apt, Sesno said placing it at CNN’s original headquarters is a symbolic gesture that evokes CNN’s historic past. CNN founder Ted Turner started the first 24 hour cable news network in 1980 at Techwood and turned it into a successful news operation.

He eventually moved CNN to what became CNN Center in downtown Atlanta 1987, where it stayed until earlier this year. CNN’s previous owner AT&T sold CNN Center in 2021 and spent 2023 into 2024 moving employees to new studios at the Midtown campus, where other Warner Bros. Discovery cable networks like TNT, TBS and truTV reside. The iconic CNN logo on the sidewalk at CNN Center was removed in March.

“I’m delighted,” said Tom Johnson, CNN president from 1990 to 1998, the years before most key CNN executives and anchors moved to New York City. “I also know CNN will do a masterful job. It also indicates the enormous respect CNN has in a highly fractured news environment.”

Paul Levinson, a Fordham University media and communications professor, said CNN may get constant criticism from both liberals and conservatives, but “they remain the most representative of mainstream America. They aren’t as insanely reactionary as Fox or lockstep progressive as MSNBC. So good for CNN.”

Brian Stelter, CNN’s former longtime media reporter who lost his job there in 2022, said this move underscores how CNN remains the Coca-Cola of news media.

“For all the buzz and trend stories about Substack and independent media free from the shackles of corporate overlords, this is a moment that underscores the need for trusted brands,” he said.

And despite his biting mockery of CNN in the past, Trump knows how important CNN is to reach potential voters in a general election, Stelter said.

Mark Thompson, a respected media executive who took over CNN last fall after the brief, messy tenure of Chris Licht, has talked about moving CNN into a more digital world and slimming down CNN’s TV operations. But so far, he has not made any major moves.

Earlier this year, Thompson decided to bring more producers back to Atlanta, which until recently has seen its footprint in CNN’s worldwide operations steadily shrink over the past two decades. Atlanta now has about one quarter of CNN’s 4,000 employees.

The debate on June 27 will have no studio audience, a shift from the way the nonprofit and bipartisan group the Commission on Presidential Debates operated. That group handled debates going back to the 1980s. Biden and Trump also agreed to a second debate to be broadcast in September by ABC News.

According to The New York Times, CNN and ABC outmaneuvered their rivals in a matter of three hours Wednesday to land the debates.

Biden had complained about the way the commission handled the 2020 debates and both Biden and Trump camps spoke to independent news organization to hold debates outside the nonprofit organization’s purview. CNN was able to appease both parties and came up with a debate format agreeable to both candidates.

Sesno noted that CNN is likely happy to remove the audience equation from the debate after the network received heat for who was in the audience during Trump’s CNN town hall last year.

Donald Trump spent 70 minutes at a CNN Town Hall on May 10, 2023 with CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins. (Screenshot)

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CNN announced that network hosts Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will moderate the first debate.

The network also said for any third-party candidate like Robert Kennedy Jr. to qualify for the debate, they would have to be on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency. They would also have to receive at least 15% support in four separation national polls of registered or likely voters that meet CNN’s standards. Polls that run from March 13 until June 20 will be considered.

A CNN spokeswoman declined to add anything more beyond the press release.