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'In the coming weeks,' writes Cohen, 'we need to generate a debate about the debates – who controls them and which candidates are included.' (Screenshot: Fox News)

TV Networks Should Open Up the Presidential Debates

Jeff Cohen

If ten major TV networks got together and decided to nationally televise a presidential debate restricted to Republican nominee Donald Trump and right-leaning Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, while barring other candidates including Democrat Hillary Clinton, it would be recognized as an act of media bias or exclusion.  

 But what if the televised debates this fall are restricted to just Trump and Clinton? That, too, needs to be recognized as an intentional act of media exclusion. 

In the coming weeks, we need to generate a debate about the debates – who controls them and which candidates are included. That’s the goal of a new petition launched by RootsAction.org, a group I co-founded.

Beginning in 1988, major TV networks granted journalistic control over the debates to a private organization with no official status: the Commission on Presidential Debates. The CPD is often called “nonpartisan.” That’s absurdly inaccurate. “Bipartisan” is the right adjective, as it has always carried out the joint will of the Republican and Democratic parties. (See George Farah’s meticulously reported book, “No Debate.”)

The commission grew out of a deal cut in the 1980s by GOP and Democratic leaders. Today, even though the US public largely distrusts the presidential candidates of the two major parties, TV networks seem willing to allow them to again dictate the terms of debate, including who gets to participate.

Here’s a brief history of how the CPD took over:

• League of Women Voters:  From 1976 through 1984, presidential and vice-presidential debates were sponsored and run by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. (In 1980, the League had insisted on allowing independent candidate John Anderson to debate.)

• “Televised Joint Appearances”:  In 1985, the national chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, signed a remarkable agreement that referred to future debates as “nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political parties . . . It is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic Committees.”

• “Exclude Third-Party Candidates”: In February 1987, Democratic Party chair Kirk and GOP chair Fahrenkopf together issued a press release and held a DC news conference to announce the formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates (“Commission on Joint Appearances” apparently didn’t sound right) – with themselves as co-chairs. The press release called the new group “bipartisan.” According to the New York Times, Fahrenkopf indicated at the news conference that the CPD was “not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates.” The Times reported: “Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third party candidates from the debates.” The newspaper quoted Kirk: “As a party chairman, it’s my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.”

“Perpetrate a Fraud”:  In 1988, with the CPD taking control of the debates on behalf of the two major parties, the League of Women Voters announced its withdrawal from any debate sponsorship “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

During the last seven presidential elections, TV networks have allowed the self-appointed CPD and the major-party campaigns to control the debates (format, who gets to ask questions, which candidates get to participate) – abandoning any role as journalistic decision-makers. Of those seven elections, only in 1992 did the CPD allow a candidate on stage who was not a Democrat or Republican: billionaire Ross Perot. That fluke happened because both parties thought Perot’s inclusion would benefit them in some way; interestingly, as you’ll see below, Perot was at only 7 to 9 percent in pre-debate polls.

After nearly three decades, the creators of the commission are still behind it: Republican Fahrenkopf remains CPD’s co-chair, Democrat Kirk is co-chair emeritus. Both have been longtime, high-powered corporate lobbyists; the commission has been funded by powerful, politically-engaged corporations, including oil and gas, insurance, pharmaceutical and Wall Street firms.

Public pressure and petitioning are needed to get the TV networks to recognize that they are at a crossroads regarding the upcoming debates: Will they act journalistically and independently in the interests of democracy – or will they continue to be dictated to by a commission whose unabashed mission since 1987 has been to protect a two-party duopoly?

Hopefully, the TV networks will recognize how much is different today compared to the 1980s when the CPD and the two major parties were allowed to seize control of debates.

1) According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as political independents has been at record highs for five years, and stood at 42 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans identifying with the two parties that control the debates has sunk. Democrats are at their lowest point in the history of Gallup polling, just 29 percent; Republicans are very near their low point at 26 percent.

2) Both major parties have nominated individuals who break records for unfavorability, leading many voters to consider alternative candidates. Hillary Clinton is at 53 percent unfavorable (vs. 42 percent favorable) in the latest Real Clear Politics polling average. Donald Trump is off the charts with 61 percent unfavorable (vs. 33 percent favorable).

3) Mainstream TV networks are fully aware of the dissatisfaction with the major party candidates and their preference polls now often include two other candidates. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll ending on August 3 had Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson at 10 percent and left-leaning Green Party candidate Jill Stein at 5 percent. The latest CNN poll had Johnson at 9 percent and Stein at 5 percent. ABC News had Johnson at 8 percent, Stein at 4 percent. Among registered voters under 30, a recent McClatchy-Marist poll had both Johnson (at 23 percent) and Stein (at 16 percent) ahead of Trump (9 percent).

An obvious option presents itself to the networks: Tell the CPD and major-party campaigns that they no longer control the debate process and that the networks intend to present debates – controlled by journalists – that include all four candidates: Clinton, Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. If Trump or Clinton balk, let them know you’re happy to leave their podium empty.

Johnson is a former governor of New Mexico. Stein is a physician and healthcare activist from Massachusetts. Both are articulate and informed on the issues. Both offer stark policy alternatives to Clinton and Trump, especially on issues of foreign policy and civil liberties. Both are expected to be on the ballot in almost every state.

The last time there were two such strong “third-party” candidates was in 2000 when columnist Patrick Buchanan ran on the right and consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran on the left. Polls showed solid majorities of the voting public (64 percent vs. 25 percent in one poll) wanted to see Buchanan and Nader included in a four-way presidential debate. But the CPD had erected a new barrier: these well-known candidates could not join the debates unless they were polling at 15 percent. 

It was an arbitrary barrier – aimed at exclusion. It was not aimed at eliminating “nonviable candidates,” but to prevent an outsider from becoming viable. How do we know? Less than 18 months earlier, Minnesota Public Radio and the Minnesota League of Women Voters chapter had included third-party candidate Jesse Ventura in a series of gubernatorial debates alongside the Democratic and Republican candidates, though he was at only 10 percent in polls before the debates began. Ventura, a mayor and talk-radio host, ended up becoming governor with 37 percent of the vote, thanks largely to his inclusion in debates.

This fall, TV networks would be wise to follow a recommendation made 16 years ago by the Appleseed Citizens’ Task Force on Fair Debates connected to American University’s law school: Include presidential candidates who are on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning, if they either “register at 5 percent in national public opinion polls OR register a majority in national public opinion polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included in the presidential debates.”

In the economic realm, if Coke and Pepsi publicly and proudly announced that they were combining forces to exclude and silence any competition, one might expect anti-trust action . . . even from usually lethargic federal regulators.

In the political realm, after Ds and Rs unabashedly announced that they formed a commission for the purpose of maintaining their duopoly of power, one might expect a reaction from TV news executives – especially in an election year when the D and R nominees are so widely disliked and mistrusted.

Here’s an appropriate reaction from TV news decision-makers: “Sorry, CPD, we don’t need you to tell us who should be excluded from this fall’s debates. In the interests of democracy, we’ll be televising four-person debates.”


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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC. He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is jeffcohen.org.

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