Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

[Editorial] Presidential Debates Commission Keeps the Internet Bottled Up

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 1 2012

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

The American presidential debates are one of the last great institutions of the era of broadcast politics, and arguably the one that has changed the least since the rise of the Internet, despite public demands for greater participation and transparency. With the first head-to-head appearance of President Obama and Governor Romney coming this Wednesday night in Denver, here's what you need to know about the debates and the web.

First, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) — the private organization that was set up by the Democratic and Republican parties in 1987 to take control of the debates from the League of Women Voters and keep them safely under bipartisan sponsorship — is deeply committed to making sure that the people who used to be known as "the audience" remain only that. There will be no citizen participation of any meaningful kind in these encounters, but the CPD has found a way to use words like "participate" and "conversation" in a sentence.

To wit, last Tuesday, CPD announced a "new digital coalition" with AOL, Google and Yahoo! called "The Voice Of …" that will "provide the American public with access to information about the issues at large, feature the live debates, allow access to archival debate footage, and give people throughout the country the opportunity to share their voice."

From the announcement:

"The 2012 debates can be the foundation for a season of conversation, and the internet initiative will provide unprecedented access for citizens to participate in that conversation," said CPD co-chairmen Michael D. McCurry and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr in a press statement. "This initiative recognizes that technology offers the means to provide, receive and share information about the topics that will be discussed during the debates - by having AOL, Google and Yahoo! as our partners, it has the potential to reach and engage more people than have ever participated in these voter education forums."

(Emphases added.)

"The Voice Of…" landing pages on AOL, Google and Yahoo! were alternately throwing up 404 error messages and placeholder pages as of Monday morning, a mere two days prior to the first debate, so apparently "unprecedented access for citizens" means something other than what you or I might think it means.

Google is going to offer some kind of interactive audience dial gadget for YouTube users, which could allow for real-time audience feedback — except it's already clear none of that feedback is going to get anywhere near the actual debate itself. As best as I can tell, what the CPD is doing is little more than what they did four years ago, except back then they partnered with Myspace on a site called that featured video streaming, on-demand playback and archival material. Oh, but this time the partner sites will include a dynamic counter showing how many people have "shared their voice."

Those of us who have been paying attention have known for some time that the CPD was disinclined to do anything that might open up their bipartisan TV show to anything like civic participation. Two years ago, my colleague Andrew Rasiej was on a Harvard Kennedy School panel with McCurry discussing the presidential debates, where he challenged the commission to embrace social media. You can watch the conversation here.

Andrew argues, valiantly, for seizing the opportunity that the internet provides to ""break down the scripting of the process" (at about 28:12). A few minutes later McCurry replies that the debates need to stay "dignified" and defends how the events are structured, which both campaigns quietly insist upon. Later at about 59 minutes in, they clash on whether it would be useful to try to engage the large share of the public that uses social networking platforms, with McCurry insisting that older voters, who make up the biggest cohort of the electorate, wouldn't be reached. Seconds later, a freshman steps up to ask a question but first pointedly rebuts McCurry, noting, "My grandmother has Facebook."

By the end of the evening, McCurry is agreeing with Andrew about the value of expanding the debate experience to include interactivity and the submission of questions, as well as ongoing discussion. "That's exactly what we want to do," he declares, at about 70 minutes in.

It's worth noting that back in July, the CPD's McCurry and Fahrenkopf had issued a statement describing the debates format for 2012, and promising that they were "undertaking an innovative internet-based voter education program that will encourage citizens to become familiar with the issues to be discussed in the debates, and to share their input with the debate moderators in advance of the debates." (Emphasis added.) The two CPD co-chairs added, "The program, which will be announced later this month [sic], will be led by a coalition of internet leaders."

Have you noticed the CPD debate moderators asking for your input anywhere? I haven't.

[Correction: Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who is moderating the vice presidential debate, has in fact asked her followers on Twitter what they would ask the candidates, and to tweet at her using the hashtag #VPdebate. That was on September 17th. (Thanks to Alex Howard for pointing that out.)]

Of course, that hasn't stopped all kinds of advocacy groups from trying to mobilize public attention around questions that they hope will be asked during the debates. If nothing else, there's an opportunity for list-building here! A big chunk of the public — including the people formerly known as the audience — does want to see serious issues addressed. The AARP is asking its members to "Tell Jim Lehrer to include Medicare and Social Security in the debates." Common Cause wants Lehrer to ask them about Citizens United. MomsRising, the Moms Clean Air Force, The Climate Reality Project, and the EDF, to name a few, all want Lehrer to ask about the climate crisis. A coalition of gun control groups want him to ask about gun violence.

I could go on. A Google search on "tell jim lehrer" produces more than 4,000 results.

Like I said, a great opportunity for list-building.

It's a bit too easy to criticize the Commission on Presidential Debates co-chairs for missing the Internet boat. The actual culprits are the two presidential campaigns. They stage manage the entire show with a secret contract negotiated in advance by their top lawyers that lays out in incredible detail what will and won't happen at the debates.

Here at PDM, we've signed on to a call from Open Debates, asking that that contract be made public in the interests of transparency. George Farah, Open Debates's founder, obtained a copy of the 2004 contract and discovered that both sides had agreed that they would not ask each other direct questions, for example. In the "town-hall"-style debate, they agreed that "Audience members shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion, and the audience member's microphone shall be turned off after he or she completes asking the question.”

Longtime techPresident readers know that here at PDM, we've been pushing for some time the idea that debates can and should be reinvented for the digital age, where the abundance of time and bandwith allows for a completely different approach to evaluating where the candidates stand and involving the public in the conversation. (See, for starters.) Unfortunately, instead of really opening up the process to take advantage of these new affordances, it looks like the CPD has opted for a safe and narrow path that mostly consists of window-dressing. The disconnect between what the public is ready for and what our elites are ready for will sadly, once again, be on view Wednesday night.

[This post has been updated with a correction.]

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.


The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.


tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.


Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.


monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.


friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO

thursday >

In Pakistan, A Hypocritical Gov't Ignores Calls To End YouTube Ban

YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan by executive order since September 2012, after the “blasphemous” video Innocence of Muslims started riots in the Middle East. Since then, civil society organizations and Internet rights advocacy groups like Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All have been working to lift the ban. Last August the return of YouTube seemed imminent—the then-new IT Minister Anusha Rehman spoke optimistically and her party, which had won the majority a few months before, was said to be “seriously contemplating” ending the ban. And yet since then, Rehman and her party, the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), have done everything in their power to maintain the status quo.


The #NotABugSplat Campaign Aims to Give Drone Operators Pause Before They Strike

In the #NotABugSplat campaign that launched this week, a group of American, French and Pakistani artists sought to raise awareness of the effects of drone strikes by placing a field-sized image of a young girl, orphaned when a drone strike killed her family, in a heavily targeted region of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Its giant size is visible to those who operate drone strikes as well as in satellite imagery. GO

Boston and Cambridge Move Towards More Open Data

The Boston City Council is now considering an ordinance which would require Boston city agencies and departments to make government data available online using open standards. Boston City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, who introduced the legislation Wednesday, officially announced her proposal Monday, the same day Boston Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order establishing an open data policy under which all city departments are directed to publish appropriate data sets under established accessibility, API and format standards. GO

YouTube Still Blocked In Turkey, Even After Courts Rule It Violates Human Rights, Infringes on Free Speech

Reuters reports that even after a Turkish court ruled to lift the ban on YouTube, Turkey's telecommunications companies continue to block the video sharing site.