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The Presidential Debates Are a Scam

David Bollier

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Every four years, the two parties and news media collude in this PR spectacle. It's time for citizens to reclaim control.

Have you wondered why the presidential debates don't present any serious ideas or encourage any substantive exchanges about policy and political philosophy? Have you noticed that the events resemble a whirring jukebox of familiar sound bites -- a highly produced, tightly scripted affair with with no surprises and little passion?

There's a reason. Both candidates and their political parties want it this way. The debates are not the production of some independent third party like the League of Women Voters, the host university or news organizations. They are co-produced by the Democratic and Republican Parties themselves, who have ingeniously disguised their actual roles by nominally delegating control to the Commission on Presidential Debates

The Commission sounds like some venerable group of eminent graybeards and experts. Not so. It is a group of party apparatchiks whose express goal is to broker the terms of the debate in order to advance and protect each candidate's interests. For the 2008 debates, the Commission negotiated a 31-page memo of understanding that lays out in precise detail the rules of stagecraft, questioning, follow-up, audience deportment, and other conditions. The contents of this memo, however, have not been disclosed despite requests by citizen groups.

We do know the upshot of the memo, however: a series of carefully orchestrated PR events that pretend to host a wide-open, vigorous debate.

The truth is, no one can really learn much about the candidates or their ideas when the format has such rigid time limits on answers and predictable questions from mainstream news anchors. The moderators are constrained from asking tough follow-up questions, and the audience is forced to sit like zombies in a funeral parlor. Even with the so-called "town hall meeting" format, there is no genuine back-and-forth dialogue between candidates and citizens. Nor are there any direct candidate-to-candidate exchanges. Third-party candidates have been summarily excluded, so there are no disruptive questions that might expose the limited vision of the two major parties. (Ralph Nader was famously excluded from the 2000 presidential debates because his citizen support was deemed too insignificant to make a difference in the election.)

In short, the presidential debates are shams if they are to be considered debates. They are meant to simulate honest, spontaneous exchanges of ideas but in fact, their real goal is to prevent any spontaneity, depth, complexity or worrisome surprises.

A more open format would give candidates greater latitude to express themselves at length and with nuance. But that's apparently what the two parties really don't want. An open format leaves too much room for candidates to be caught off-guard or exposed as superficial. An open format would require candidates to be able to go beyond repetitious talking points and rehearsed accusations and one-liners.

In 1998, former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite wrote, "The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become ... the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse." It is a testament to the state of mainstream journalism that leading news anchors happily agree to participate in these farces. It's great PR exposure, after all.

One of the best debunkings of the modern presidential debates is George Farah's book, No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates (Seven Stories Press, 2004). Farah charges that the Commission on Presidential Debates "acts as an effective screen for the two parties to evade citizens' most pressing questions, and absorbs the political costs that would otherwise accrue to the parties. This function of the CPD, as an arms-length organ of the parties, amounts to a shocking institutional rigging of the electoral process that degrades our democracy and signals worrying bipartisan contempt for transparency in this country's highest elected office."

This year, however, an insurgent citizen coalition is arising to challenge the rigged presidential debates. The Open Debate Coalition, led by Professor Lawrence Lessig, has sent a letter to the Obama and McCain campaigns asking them to change the ground rules for the debates. The coalition spans a broad left-right political spectrum. It includes Craig Newmark of Craiglist; Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post; filmmaker Robert Greenwald; Mindy Finn, a Republican strategist; Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia; Patrick Ruffini, a former Republican National Committee eCampaign Director; and many others.

The Coalition has asked that the debate moderator have broad discretion to ask follow-up questions after a candidate's answer, and that the public be able to use the Internet to vote on which questions shall be asked. The Coalition has also asked that, as a stipulation of the next debate, the media pool must release all 2008 debate footage into the public domain.

This is an issue because on at least two occasions, TV networks have invoked copyright law to prevent candidates from using footage from the debates. Bloggers and other commentators should not be constrained from using video snippets from the debates because the host TV network asserts copyright control over its footage. The event ought to be available to every citizen, especially now that citizens have their own video-production and -publishing capacities.

Despite promising responses to the Coalition's letter from both candidates, it remains to be seen whether the media pool will put their video of the debate into the public domain and whether moderator Tom Brokaw will use any citizen questions that citizens have voted on at Google's website.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether the Commission on Presidential Debates will reform its practices in the future. Right now, the "debates" use a format that is deliberately designed to minimize actual debate, maximize positive PR for the candidates, and deflect any criticism of the debate format away from the two major parties. It's time to open the closed debate structure to citizen voices and a more open format. The two parties should not be able to enclose democratic debate. Citizens, not parties, ought to reclaim the debates. If the United States hopes to recover its moral authority as a champion of democracy, it needs to start walking the talk. What better venue than the presidential debates?

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