To borrow one of CNN’s advertising slogans, the cable outlet decided to “go there” during Monday night’s great debate.
If you depended on that particular news source, as I did, to watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump mix it up at Long Island’s Hofstra University, you might have gotten the idea that the debate’s moderator, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, was merely a disembodied voice, posing questions from a kind of nightmare limbo—occasionally heard, as he struggled to keep the candidates on time and on point, but never seen.
CNN’s nearly 10 million debate viewers could be forgiven for wondering if the Commission on Presidential Debates was responsible for marginalizing their hand-picked moderator by providing camera angles of the candidates but essentially making Holt disappear, except when he introduced Clinton and Trump at the beginning of the event and shook their hands at the end.
Maybe the debate commission was still trying to atone for CNN anchor Candy Crowley’s notorious intervention in the 2012 foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama—when Crowley took Obama’s side in a dispute over how quickly he had called the Benghazi attack an “act of terror.”
Indeed, the commission’s executive director, Janet Brown, had declared this past Sunday that fact-checking the candidates isn’t a moderator’s job.
And if Holt had hoped to introduce himself and his journalistic chops to a record-breaking domestic and worldwide audience, that hope was pretty much dashed.
Other journalistic outlets, such as the New Yorker and Fortune magazines, apparently had the same impression.
“The Internet Wants to Know What Happened to Lester Holt at the Presidential Debate,” read the headline on Fortune’s web site, which sampled tweets such as this one: “Just grabbed some milk from the fridge and sure enough @LesterHoltNBC's picture is on the side of the carton.”
Meanwhile, the New Yorker’s resident satirist, Andy Borowitz, captured the weird and frankly unsettling scenario in a piece headlined “CNN LAUNCHES MANHUNT AFTER LESTER HOLT VANISHES FROM DEBATE.”
“CNN launched an urgent manhunt Monday after Lester Holt, the moderator of the first Presidential debate of the 2016 general election, mysteriously vanished two minutes into the contest,” Borowitz reported.
“Network officials became concerned after the two Presidential nominees, Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton, were observed shrieking at each other nonstop for ninety seconds without intervention from Holt.”
It turns out that CNN is an outlier in this regard. MSNBC--CNN’s fierce rival in the cable TV ratings race for second place to long-dominant Fox News—was very much in the mainstream when it regularly showed the 57-year-old Holt, large as life, filling TV screens as he sat at his moderator’s desk and grilled the candidates.
Some criticisms of Holt’s debate performance--of not stopping Trump from interrupting Clinton multiple times, for example—may still stand, whether we could see him or not.
But the image of Holt on other networks beside CNN actively taking charge on the occasions that he did—most memorably, challenging Trump on his birtherism obsession—tended to undercut the verdict that Holt’s authority to discipline the candidates and keep the proceedings moving had been severely undermined, not only for the huuuge viewing audience (at 80.9 million (at time of writing), the most-watched presidential debate in American history) but also for partisans in the hall.
Clearly, the notion that CNN’s eccentric debate coverage was representative of Holt’s performance—a premise in my initial review for The Daily Beast that was posted after midnight and later removed from the home page—was now inoperative.
So how CNN come to make its choices?
My investigation quickly led to the debate coverage decisions of CNN President Jeff Zucker, a famously hands-on news executive who rose from producing NBC’s Today show as a 26-year-old phenom, to running NBC Universal, before being ousted in 2010, albeit with a $30 million to $40 million golden parachute, when the cable giant Comcast bought NBC from General Electric.
Apparently Zucker, as is his wont, was in a control room Monday night as his network chose shots from the debate commission’s eight pool cameras being operated by ABC News.
Unlike the broadcast and cable outlets I checked with today, which regularly showed Holt at work during the debate—ABC, CBS, Fox Television, Fox News, Fox Business Network, Univision, and, of course, all of the NBC properties (including MSNBC and Telemundo)—CNN stayed with a split screen of Clinton and Trump and never cut to the NBC anchor.
C-SPAN, available in 100 million homes, did the same, but its sister channel C-SPAN 2 (97 million homes) offered viewers a Holt-friendly broadcast.
I asked CNN and Zucker for insight into this odd circumstance, but didn’t receive a response.
There are, of course, no shortage of conspiracy theories at NBC surrounding the super-competitive Zucker, who seldom misses an opportunity to give derisive quotes about his former employer along with MSNBC and its talent, although he is said to like Lester Holt and praised his debate moderating job internally at CNN, which has published positive stories about the NBC anchor on its website.
Still, an NBC insider, who asked not to be further identified, told me: "Once again Jeff sacrificed journalism and the interests of the viewing audience at the altar of his own childish grudge against NBC. I guess the CNN staff should just be grateful he didn't cut away to Corey Lewandowski mid-debate"—a reference to the former Trump campaign manager, and perhaps Zucker’s most controversial hire this election cycle, who is on CNN’s payroll as a pundit while also receiving $20,000 a month in severance checks from the Trump campaign.
CNN offered no reply.