June 28, 2024

If you didn’t watch Thursday night’s debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, and you only read a transcript, you might have a different view than those who watched and listened to the debate.

Based on substance, and substance alone, Democrats thought Biden had a decent night, pointing out the accomplishments of his presidency and his vision for the next four years while slamming Trump for repeating lies and avoiding tough questions.

But if you watched and listened to the debate, well, that was another story.

Here’s how bad it went for Biden: Even the Democratic analysts on CNN and MSNBC needed some spicy mustard because of the way they were twisting themselves into pretzels trying to defend how Biden looked and sounded.

Ultimately, however, it was a tough spin, and even they knew it. To their credit, they called it like they saw it, and what they saw was not good.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said Biden had an “unexpectedly weak voice.”

Former Biden press secretary Jen Psaki, now an MSNBC host, said afterward, “I don’t think we should sugarcoat this. This was not the debate performance that the Biden campaign team needed or wanted from this debate.”

ABC News senior congressional correspondent Rachel Scott reported that Trump campaign sources — that’s right, Trump campaign sources — wondered what was wrong with Biden’s voice.

Even Vice President Kamala Harris admitted Biden had a “slow start,” although she thought he finished strongly. (There were reports that Biden was suffering from a cold, but there was no word of that before the debate.)

In the end, most everyone agreed: Joe Biden had a bad night.

That was the story, and not anything Trump said, whether it was true or not.

CNN’s Van Jones talked about his love and deep admiration for Biden, but then questioned what should happen next, saying, “​​There’s a lot of people who are going to want to see him consider taking a different course now.”

That’s right. There was at least some buzz in media and political circles, after conversations with some movers and shakers in the Democratic party, that asked the previously unthinkable: Could Biden actually step down and/or be replaced as the 2024 Democratic nominee?

NBC News’ Chuck Todd said, “At the end of the day, Joe Biden looks like the caricature that the conservative media has been painting.”

Todd later added, “I’ve been talking to a lot of leaders in the Democratic Party, elected coalition leaders. There’s a full-on panic about this performance. Not like, ‘Oh, this is recoverable.’ It is more of, ‘OK, he’s got to step aside.’ There’s a lot of that chatter.”

But many, such as CNN’s David Axelrod and others close to Biden, say that will not happen, that they fully expect Biden to charge forward. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Harris gave full-throated endorsements on MSNBC after the debate.

As far as Biden not running or being replaced, NBC News’ Hallie Jackson said, “​​I will tell you it is all but virtually impossible for that to actually happen. But the fact that that is even being raised, the fact that that is even a shadow now hanging over the debate performance for President Biden is at minimum a headache for the Biden campaign moving into the next stretch of this campaign.”

CBS News’ Robert Costa said, “Based on my conversations with Democrats, some might be frustrated with President Biden’s performance, but talking to sources close to President Biden and people that have known him a long time, there is zero chance, they tell me tonight, that he steps away from running. They believe this election is about Trump, not about President Biden’s debate performance. And they believe they have a record to run on. … He may not have brought his best game tonight. But their explanation is that this is just who he is in terms of his personality.”

Reince Priebus, the ABC News contributor and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, “It’s going to take Joe Biden deciding that he should step aside. I don’t know if he’s going to do that, but I think there are going to be a lot of people talking to him about stepping aside. Look, Joe Biden needed to do two things. He needed to articulate a clear vision for what he is going to do moving forward, and he needed to do it in a way that gave people confidence that he had the mental acuity to deliver. He failed on both of those marks.”

As much as Democrats might have wanted to spin the talk back to the substance of the debate and Biden’s resume, Mark McKinnon wrote for Vanity Fair, “No one is going to remember a single policy issue debated tonight. Democrats had their greatest concerns confirmed. And now are in a full-blown panic. Republicans were reassured that their guy can keep his composure and is ready to take the wheel. And if you’re an independent, you probably didn’t see much of anything you liked, but you sure didn’t see anything in Joe Biden that would persuade you he’s ready for another term.”

Some tried to sell the idea that Biden did get stronger as the night went on. But Semafor’s David Weigel wrote, “Biden picked up some steam as the debate went on, clearing his throat less and getting in tougher hits on Trump’s character and values, an issue that’s animated him like no other throughout the race. But the damage was done. Even with the benefit of low expectations, aided by Trump’s relentless attacks on his health before the debate, Biden left his party dreading the aftermath.”

Others did point out that Trump served up his usual buffet of lies.

CBS News’ John Dickerson might have summed it up best, saying, “For the majority of Americans who don’t want this choice, the debate met those expectations.”

It all made for a fascinating night, and will certainly lead to plenty of conversation as we head into the Fourth of July.

Here are some other thoughts and reactions from Thursday night’s debate …

Muted mics

A look at the ABC News set, with anchor David Muir in the center, discussing Thursday night’s presidential debate. (Courtesy: ABC News)

Perhaps the biggest news coming into Thursday night’s debate was a new wrinkle — one that was unheard of but had been called upon after recent debates swerved off the road.

It was the ability for the debate organizers to shut off the microphones of unruly candidates who were speaking out of turn and not following the rules of what was supposed to be a civil debate.

Turns out, the mute button was barely needed.

But it still had a big impact on Thursday’s debate.

There was a sense among many commentators that at least the threat of having a microphone turned off reeled them in, especially Trump, who has a history of ignoring the rules of when he is allowed to talk and not. Neither candidate continued talking beyond a second or two once their mics were turned off and at no point did CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash have to admonish the candidates for speaking when they shouldn’t have been.

Aidan McLaughlin, editor-in-chief of Mediate, tweeted, “The CNN debate rules have ended up helping Trump. Little fact-checking of false claims, and forcing him to wait his turn to speak has kept his behavior within the bounds of sanity.”

However, there were plenty who did try to point out Trump’s performance, too. While he may have sounded energetic, many of his words were simply not true.

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl said, “Donald Trump did go through rapid-fire lies, I mean, a machine gun of lies. He said things like, everybody wanted Roe v. Wade repealed, that everything was rocking good when he was president, there were no wars, the unselect committee deleted all the evidence that Nancy Pelosi refused 10,000 National Guard troops — none of that was true, and Biden was not effectively able to bring the argument back to him.”

The moderators

CNN’s Jake Tapper, left, and Dana Bash, the moderators of Thursday’s debate. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Tapper and Bash had a good night. They were like umpires in a baseball game — when you don’t notice them, when they don’t become the story, it’s a good thing.

The New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum wrote, “CNN’s moderators have, for the most part, receded into the background, deferring to the candidates to rebut each other’s arguments. They’ve followed up on a handful of questions that generated off-topic answers. Biden supporters may complain that the moderators are not jumping in to correct Trump’s baseless claims. But CNN also said ahead of time that its moderators would facilitate, not participate in, this debate.”

If there was a complaint, as Grynbaum touched on, it’s that the moderators didn’t fact-check the candidates, particularly Trump, who spent much of the night spewing lies, falsehoods and misleading comments.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted, “I wish the CNN moderators did more fact-checking, letting the audience know when things are said that are flatly false. Not sure how it helps for a platform to transmit falsehoods disguised as facts.”

But CNN clearly stated ahead of time that the moderators would not be doing any fact-checking.

To their credit, the moderators did push the candidates, especially Trump, when they didn’t answer the questions asked of them. At one point, Bash asked Trump three times if he would accept the results of the election.

If there was a valid complaint it’s that the moderators did allow Trump to wander off topic a few too many times without pulling him back, but to be fair, they did need to move on to other questions.

Tapper and Bash hit most of the pertinent topics — immigration, abortion, the economy, Trump’s legal issues and the ages of both candidates. They were direct, but not combative. They facilitated the conversation without inserting themselves into the conversation. They seemed fair, but tough.

Overall, Tapper and Bash had a good night, a real good night.

Veteran media reporter Brian Stelter tweeted, “A CNN exec in the control room texts me: ‘We are very proud of Jake and Dana. Our job was to make sure candidates were heard so voters can make informed decisions and we are pleased we were able to do that.’”

Strongest commentary

In back-to-back moments on MSNBC well after midnight, former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle gave fascinating insight into what some Democrats were thinking in the wake of Biden’s underwhelming debate.

McCaskill called Trump a “liar, a flawed character, mean, a jerk, very unlikeable and that was obvious.”

However, McCaskill said, “Joe Biden had one thing to do tonight and he didn’t do it. He had one thing he had to accomplish, and that was to reassure America that he was up to the job at his age. And he failed at that.”

McCaskill said she didn’t know what this meant moving forward, but she called it a “heartbreaking” night.

“There’s a lot of people who watched this tonight,” McCaskill said, “and felt terribly for Joe Biden.”

She said it felt like the Democrats were “confronting a crisis,” and later said the night was a “gut punch.” However, she said it would take a couple of days to get over that gut punch and figure out the next steps, including the possibility that Biden would rebound.

“But there were some moments tonight that all of us were holding our breath,” McCaskill said. “And that’s not the kind of thing you want to happen 130 days out from an election when you have Donald Trump on the other side of the equation.”

Meanwhile, right after McCaskill spoke, Ruhle said sources, which included Democratic lawmakers and donors, were “frustrated” and “upset.”

They told her that Trump gave the performance they expected, telling lies. But they were frustrated with Biden’s team that they didn’t have him prepared to push back more.

Ruhle said, “President Biden was, at times, inaudible, inarticulate, didn’t land a punch, didn’t counterpunch and sort of gave Donald Trump a free show.”

And that made many of Ruhle’s sources wonder if Biden was “up for the job.”

Good explanations

The New York Times’ Michael D. Shear put it well in his story: “Former President Donald J. Trump repeatedly delivered aggressive, often misleading attacks against a shaky President Biden during a 90-minute debate Thursday night, offering millions of voters a stark contrast amid a high-stakes rematch in which Mr. Biden’s performance was repeatedly foggy and disjointed.”

Yep, that sums it up well. As did this line from The Associated Press shortly into the debate: “In the first half-hour of debate, a raspy Biden delivers rambling answers while Trump counters with energy and falsehoods.”

The New York Times’ Peter Baker wrote, “Over the course of 90 minutes, a raspy-voiced Mr. Biden struggled to deliver his lines and counter a sharp though deeply dishonest former President Donald J. Trump, raising doubts about the incumbent president’s ability to wage a vigorous and competitive campaign four months before the election. Rather than dispel concerns about his age, Mr. Biden, 81, made it the central issue.”

The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker wrote, “The president — who desperately needed to use Thursday night’s debate to reassure skeptical voters that he has the physical and mental stamina to lead the nation — instead offered a shaky performance, especially in the early minutes, when more voters were likely to be watching. Perhaps more alarming for Democrats, Biden played into Trump’s caricature — of an enfeebled man past his prime — that has privately worried even some of Biden’s staunchest supporters. His voice was soft and raspy, and he repeatedly tried, and failed, to clear his throat. His answers, at times, were rambling, and at one point he froze up.”

About that coin flip

Biden’s team won a pre-debate coin flip, meaning they got first pick. They could either decide which podium to stand behind, or whether to go first or last in the closing statement. Biden’s team won the pick and decided to go behind the podium on the right side of the TV screen. Trump then chose to go last in the closing arguments.

Biden’s team made the wrong pick. The right podium made for an awkward scene all night as Biden was constantly looking well away from the camera.

And that wasn’t all. Writing for The New York Times’ running debate blog, Reid J. Epstein wrote, “The split-screen is not kind to Biden. While Trump is speaking, the president is watching, mouth agape, as his eyes dart back and forth. But while Biden speaks, his own voice is clearly hoarse and he is having trouble delivering complete thoughts. If Biden hoped to dispel the age concerns by goading Trump into an early debate, he has not done so in the first 30 minutes.”

CNN’s Kasie Hunt tweeted, “The voice, open-mouthed look, and visual contrast between President Biden and former President Trump all have Democrats I’m talking to nearly beside themselves watching this debate.”

The headlines

Here were the headlines of some major news organizations following the debate:

  • The New York Times: Biden Struggles as Trump Blusters in Contentious Debate
  • The Washington Post: Biden struggles, Trump deflects questions
  • The Wall Street Journal: Biden Crashed in First Clash With Trump
  • Politico: ‘Biden is toast’
  • Axios: Biden blunders dominate combative debate with Trump
  • NBC News: Biden sends Democrats into a panic; Trump unleashes bad information
  • CBS News: Presidential debate highlights from Trump and Biden’s first showdown of 2024
  • CNN: Biden’s poor showing and Trump’s repeated deflection
  • MSNBC: Biden stumbles; Trump caveats election results question
  • USA Today: Biden supporters alarmed after president’s debate struggles

Check it out

Be sure to check out Poynter’s PolitiFact: “2024 presidential debate fact-check: How accurate were Joe Biden, Donald Trump?”

CNN’s wrong call

CNN had a good night overall, but the network did do one thing you have to question.

On Wednesday, a group of senior journalists from some of the most noted journalism outfits in the country sent a letter to CNN, imploring the network to allow a pool reporter into the debate studio during the debate. On Thursday, hours before the debate, White House Correspondents’ Association President Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News put out a statement urging the same thing.

The first letter was signed by journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News and The Associated Press. That letter pointed out that a WHCA reporter always had access to the debates hosted by the Commission on Presidential Debates, writing, “During the commission era, a pool was inside the venue and able to document the scene, including news that happened that was not on camera. As you know, there is more to the debate than what will be seen on television.”

The New York Times’ Katie Robertson and Benjamin Mullin wrote, “CNN said in a statement that it respects the White House Correspondents’ Association’s role but reiterated that the event would be closed to press. Its rules specify that the debate will be held in a CNN studio closed to the news media, although access will be given to a pool of still photographers. A print pool reporter will also be given access during the commercial breaks.”

In her statement from the WHCA, O’Donnell wrote, “The White House pool has a duty to document, report and witness the president’s events and his movements on behalf of the American people. The pool is there for the ‘what ifs?’ in a world where the unexpected does happen. A pool reporter is present to provide context and insight by direct observation and not through the lens of the television production. A pool reporter is an independent observer whose duties are separate from the production of the debate as a news event. The pool reporter works on behalf of the entire White House press corps. Print pool reports are an important part of the historical record.”

CNN absolutely should have allowed a pool reporter in the room for the exact reason O’Donnell pointed out: the “what if” factor. Those inside the room certainly would’ve been able to observe and report beyond what could be seen by TV cameras.

The debate wasn’t the only thing going on Thursday. Here’s the rest of today’s newsletter …

Big journalism moves

Sewell Chan, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, will become the next executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review — which covers media through two magazine issues a year and a website with newsletters.

Chan, who has been at The Texas Tribune since October 2021, told The New York Times’ Katie Robertson about moving to CJR, saying, “It has always been an intellectual leader in our field, especially on news ethics and decision-making. I want CJR to be a voice for working journalists who face existential challenges — from hedge fund owners to authoritarian leaders to online harassment — and to explain to the public why fact-based news is more important than ever.”

Chan is one of the most respected names in journalism with a deep and impressive resume, including work at the Los Angeles Times, where he was a deputy managing editor and editorial page editor. He also has worked at The New York Times and The Washington Post, and has written for The Wall Street Journal and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Chan has been on the board of CJR since 2021.

Jelani Cobb, the dean of Columbia Journalism School, told Robertson that Chan was “one of the smartest people I know in journalism and publishing right now. We both had a sense that CJR really has to be more of a place where the problems that we’re confronting in journalism get worked on, the things that we’re trying to address.”

Chan replaces Kyle Pope, who was CJR’s editor from 2016 to 2023. He left to become executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.

Meanwhile …

The Texas Tribune already has a replacement for Chan. Longtime staffer Matthew Watkins, currently The Texas Tribune’s managing editor of news and politics, will take over as editor.

Sonal Shah, chief executive officer at The Texas Tribune, wrote, “He has earned the trust of our journalists, as well as his colleagues across the organization, and understands the stories that matter most to Texans.”

Shah added, “This is a natural transition for the Tribune, and Matthew will inherit a newsroom made better by Sewell’s leadership. In the three years he’s been at the Tribune, Sewell has raised our level of journalistic quality, rigor and ambition.”

And now for more media news, tidbits and interesting links for your weekend review …

More resources for journalists

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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