Whose interests does the presidential debates commission serve?

On Monday, Mark Halperin published a memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns on how the debates would be conducted. Both campaigns had expressed concern that Candy Crowley, who will moderate tonight's town-hall-style debate, might ask follow-up questions.

USA Today's Martha T. Moore writes that Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., a co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told her "the commission is not bound by the campaigns' agreement"; Crowley "will be able to ask follow-up questions during a two-minute 'discussion' period after each candidate has answered the question posed by a member of the audience," Moore writes.

"This (agreement) is between the campaigns,'' [Fahrenkopf] said Monday. "We haven't agreed to it and neither has Candy.'' Nor has the commission sent CNN a copy of the campaigns' agreement, called a memorandum of understanding, he said.

Fahrenkopf is not twisting the facts: The memo says the agreement is between the Obama and Romney campaigns, whose representatives' signatures are its only endorsements. But if CPD wants to sponsor the debates, it has to honor the agreement. It's in the agreement:

The candidates agree that the Commission will sponsor the debates, subject to its expression of willingness to employ the provisions of this agreement in conducting these debates. In the event the Commission does not so agree, the two campaigns jointly reserve the right to determine whether an alternate sponsor is preferable.

Mike McCurry, CPD's other co-chair, told Tech President's Micah Sifry, "I think we may be splitting too many hairs here" about the campaigns' desire to rein in Crowley.

Our only issue is that the citizen questioners get their chance to pose the question without reinterpretation from the moderator. And of course she has the reins during the discussion period

"This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Commission on Presidential Debates," Sifry writes.

On the one hand, to maintain its tenuous legal standing as the unofficial arbiter of who gets into the debates, it has to pretend to be neutral and not a creature of the two major parties and their presidential campaigns. On the other hand, in order to actually have the confidence of the major party campaigns, the CPD has to do its utmost to enforce the secret memorandum the campaigns negotiate that actually governs these joint TV appearances.

So whose interests, exactly, is the debates commission looking out for? Is it the voters? The networks? The candidates? All three benefit in various ways.

The candidates

According to the memo, the campaigns approve the debate formats, how town-hall debate participants will be chosen, how the candidates will be addressed and how and when the moderator will select their questions.

They must approve the commission's designs for the table used in the vice-presidential and third presidential debates. The campaigns stipulate that the commission will follow its agreements on the height of podiums, the noise level of the audience ("silent observation") and the "appropriate temperature" of the room.

In 1988, the League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring presidential debates "because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." League President Nancy M. Neuman said the campaign's demands regarding "the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues" were "outrageous" and called their agreement "a closed-door masterpiece."

The Commission on Presidential Debates was created in 1987. In their agreement, the campaigns say they won't appear together in person or in any other forum. "If we’re going to have fewer questions, then naturally we need more debates," debates critic George Farah tells Brian Stelter.

The networks

Ratings for the presidential debates have been very good. The Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate drew more than 50 million viewers. The Oct. 3 presidential debate drew 67 million -- just behind the Super Bowl, David Carr noted.

Interestingly, the agreement between campaigns would seem to ban the split screens that are mother's milk for post-debate analysts on the networks. And during: CNN's coverage looks like something out of "Minority Report" compared to PBS' poky insistence on training the camera on whoever's speaking.

From the memo:

When a candidate is speaking, either in asking a question or making his closing statement, TV coverage will be limited to the best of the Commission's ability to the candidate speaking. To the best of the Commission's abilities, there will be no TV cut-aways to any candidate who is not responding to a question while another candidate is answering a question or to a candidate who is not giving a closing statement while another candidate is doing so.

The voters

Romney has surged in polls after the first debate, which Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein wrote featured a "weedy tax argument that no normal human being could possibly follow." Klein writes something called Wonkblog, so I think it's safe to take that as a compliment.

As constricted as these things are, voters are tuning in like crazy and using them to help choose who will lead the country. Would they really have a better basis for that decision if the debates were unshackled from the campaigns? Perhaps not. Maybe a better question is: Does the secrecy in which the debates are organized adequately reflect the democracy they're supposed to serve?

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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