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

Who Controls the Presidential Debates? Journalists or the Campaigns?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 15 2012

Photo: Don Relyea / Flickr

In the wake of comments by CNN's Candy Crowley, who will be moderating tomorrow's presidential debate, that she was planning to ask her own follow-up questions to the ones posed by citizens that she calls on during the townhall-style event, Mark Halperin reported last night that both campaigns were expressing concerns to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Halperin says he was leaked a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the Obama and Romney campaigns, and that it explicitly limits Crowley's role in the following way. After each audience member question and two-minute response from each candidate:

“In managing the two-minute comment periods, the moderator will not rephrase the question or open a new topic … The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on either the questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates during the debate or otherwise intervene in the debate except to acknowledge the questioners from the audience or enforce the time limits, and invite candidate comments during the two-minute response period.”

(Update: Here's what Halperin describes as the full memorandum of understanding.)

This directly contradicts what CPD co-chair Mike McCurry told me on the record last week, when I asked him whether Crowley could use questions submitted online. He emphasized that the commission had to guarantee "full editorial control" to each debate moderator, in part to preserve its legal standing as a neutral host of a genuine "news event."

Recall that he told me that the two campaigns weren't meddling in the details of the debates: "To my knowledge, they have a memorandum of understanding about the number of tickets, the temperature in the room" and similar logistics. Pressed by me on whether it restricted the content of the debates, as we now know occurred in 2004, he added, "…there's little in the document that they ended up negotiating that is specific about the format, the questioning or the moderators."

Specifically responding to my question about the town-hall debate and Google Moderator's online solicitation of questions for Crowley to use, McCurry said, "The campaigns have tried to say that here is the way it's going to work, but the only thing that governs it is what we've announced--that the citizens ask the questions, Crowley picks them, and each candidate will get an opportunity to follow up. And then there will be two minutes of follow up that Candy will moderate. So she has some discretion to move beyond the questions that are posed."

Asked in the wake of Halperin's report about the apparent contradiction, McCurry emailed me today to say, "I stand corrected.  Remember she has sole editorial control of whom to call upon and only she will know the content of the questions the citizens will ask.  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.  I think we may be splitting too many hairs here."

Actually, this isn't splitting hairs. This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Commission on Presidential Debates. 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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed wednesday >

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.

GO

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.

GO

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.

GO

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.

GO

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.

GO

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.

GO

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.

GO

More