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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.

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