The Commission on Presidential Debates Misses the Internet Boat—Again

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New media offer great chances for citizens to get involved, but the group that organizes debates has failed to take advantage of them.

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Richard Nixon (left) and John Kennedy debate in New York in 1960. (Associated Press)

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 former 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 (emphases added):

"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 thatconversation," 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."

"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 MyDebates.org that featured video streaming, on-demand playback and archival material. Oh, and 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 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, with one exception. Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who is moderating the vice-presidential debate, has asked her followers on Twitter what they would ask the candidates, and to tweet at her using the hashtag #VPdebate.

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.

At Personal Democracy Media, 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 PDM has 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 10Questions.com, 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.

A version of this article was first published at techPresident.com.

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Micah L. Sifry is co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Media, which produces the annual Personal Democracy Forum and techPresident.com. He is the author or editor of six books, most recently Wikileaks and the Age of the Transparency, and teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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