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Presidential Debates Commission Hasn't Used the Web Well, Co-Chair Admits

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 8 2012

The Commission on Presidential Debates' "The Voice Of…" Internet initiative, touted by the CPD as providing "unprecedented access for citizens to participate in [the national] conversation" with the bannered support of AOL, Google and Yahoo!, is essentially a dud.

An estimated 67 million Americans watched the first Obama-Romney presidential debate last week, while just 2,792 people have bothered to share their views about the top issues facing the country on the online platform built by the commission so members of the public could "share their voice." In an interview with me on Monday morning, CPD national co-chair Mike McCurry explained that he wants the commission to use the web to better involve the public in highlighting the pressing issues in each presidential election. As the debates only happen with the consent of the candidates, he said, that can only happen in ways the campaigns will allow — and if they back out, the entire institution of televised debates could be at risk.

"My hope had been that we'd create something more universal and get more input and get more dialogue between people who are participating and responding," said McCurry, a former press secretary to President Clinton. "We have a lot more work to do," he told me.

The CPD was established in 1987 by two former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, and has managed televised debates ever since. But as the Internet competes for relevance with the medium that midwived live debates, the CPD has struggled to adapt. McCurry effectively admitted as much, then indicated the commission is open to input on what to do next.

"We have institutionalized the nationally-broadcast presidential debates and have developed excellent relationships with the major networks and partners who help organize, produce, and distribute that content," McCurry says. "But we are still feeling our way in how best to use new and social media to make the debates more interactive."

As has become the custom with these events, the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns' top lawyers, Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, respectively, have hammered out an agreement governing the logistics of the four face-offs. But McCurry says this agreement leaves its hands off of the content of the debate itself.

"To my knowledge, they have a memorandum of understanding about the number of tickets each side gets, the temperature in the room, and so on," he told me.

"There's little in the document that they ended up negotiating that is specific about the format, the questioning, or the moderators," he added.

For legal reasons, McCurry says, those decisions have to be up to the journalists who moderate each event. The CPD is often sued by minor candidates who it excludes from participation on grounds that it insists are neutral, such as needing at least 15 percent public support in the polls before the debates start. (Many observers, including this writer, think that threshold is way too high.) So far, it has successfully won those lawsuits by arguing that it is simply hosting a "news event" whose content is actually decided by news organizations who can choose whomever they wish to include on journalistic grounds.

McCurry says that means it would be a problem, for example, for the CPD to set up a website inviting the public to submit questions for consideration and promising that they'd be asked.

"Then," he said, "you are not guaranteeing that the full editorial control of the event will be in the hands of the moderator."

That could weaken the commission's legal standing as the unofficial convener of what is now something of a national tradition.

That said, McCurry expressed enthusiasm when I directed his attention to a web page apparently set up by Google for CNN's Candy Crowley, who is moderating the next Obama-Romney meeting on October 16th, a debate that is going to run "town-hall" style with questions from a live audience of undecided voters. Through the page, which is an instance of the Google Moderator tool, participants are being given the opportunity post their own questions to the candidates and vote up or down on each others' suggestions.

"The Commission on Presidential Debates will give a selection of your questions to CNN's Candy Crowley, who will be moderating the debate and asking questions of the two nominees," the page notes. So far, 3,259 people have submitted 362 questions and cast nearly 28,000 votes on them.

The Google Moderator site was news to McCurry, who is admittedly not involved in the day-to-day management of the commission, but he thought it could be useful — to a point.

"It only gets you so far," he said. "This information has to go to a moderator who has to be conscious of the fact that it's a quantified response from the online audience. We are still for very important reasons bound to whatever the moderator wants to do."

What wasn't clear was how Crowley was going to use the online input, especially since she is supposed to only choose questions from the live audience and not superimpose her own views the way Tom Brokaw did four years ago when he was the town-hall moderator.

CNN representatives have so far not responded to several requests for comment.

While McCurry said he sincerely wanted to find a way to use the Internet to pull in good questions from the public in advance of the debates, he was clearly wary of trying anything that might interfere with the live flow of the encounter between the two candidates.

"We have not attempted to do anything to inject real time responses into the debate," he told me.

The executive producers would have a fit because it could inject live variables into the broadcast, but that wasn't the only hang-up. Using the Internet to allow for real-time feedback during these debates is simply something politicians or their handlers are not ready to allow.

"The campaigns would have trouble with that," he said. "Something I understand, wearing my political hat."

Again and again in our conversation McCurry returned to the fragile nature of the CPD and the debate tradition that it has managed to sustain.

"Frankly it's 90 minutes, you have two candidates and one moderator. It's a live event. We have talked about adding other features and more or less said that we don't want to do anything to risk the continuity of what the candidates are involved in," he said.

Could you use the web to invite longer answers from the candidates, to get them out of the "sound-bite" game, I asked. Could you display a live fact-check sidebar, staffed by bipartisan experts, alongside the video feed on the CPD's website? Could you ask viewers if they were satisfied with the candidates' answers, and report back the aggregate results? McCurry said he personally like all of these ideas, but also cautioned that he's got a tradition to protect.

"If we build something that begins to stretch the willingness of the candidates to participate, then we may put some risk to the institution that we've built," he said. "In the onset, the commission was more fragile, and had no real authority to establish itself. It's become legitimate. In '96, Clinton said, 'I'll only do two of your debates.' There's no law that says they have to debate. We have to design something that will still be seen as something the campaigns feel they have to do. That's where it's been difficult to leverage all the things the Internet makes possible."

The perverse result is that by creating and fine-tuning an institution that runs according to the economics and culture of television, the Commission on Presidential Debates now has to defend broadcast politics from Internet politics. Despite having four years from the last presidential election to watch and learn from all the ways that the social web was expanding political discourse, the commission did little to get ready to take advantage of the net this fall. And so now we have the strange spectacle of millions of Americans talking with each other in public about the debates, and influencing the media coverage of each event--but not a word of it will make it anywhere close to the rarified stage where two men and one moderator act out the aging rituals of televised democracy.