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Friday, Oct 10, 2008, 2:18 pm

The Debates’ Joke is on You

By Jeremy Gantz
This country's presidential debates are a joke. I'm not talking about the tone or even the topics covered in this election cycle's debates: They were mostly (and rightly so) somber affairs, addressing a number of Big Issues (barely). The sad, sick joke is how they are planned, structured and executed to make any truly improvised moments from candidates nearly impossible, and to exclude anyone who is not Democrat or Republican.

More specifically, if you watched the two presidential debates (not to mention the vice-presidential debate) held thus far, you probably noticed that they were borderline farcical: lacking any real follow-up questions from Jim Lehrer and Tom Brokaw, generally allowing each candidate to shift into more comfortable terrain whenever a question proved too difficult or uncomfortable to answer directly, and choosing mostly soft questions for the "town hall-style" debate. (If this week's debate was supposed to reflect an actual town, I never want to move there.)

As it turns out, a lot of other people, including Lawrence Lessig, Markos Moulitsas and Arianna Huffington, noticed this too. In fact, the motley crew of political pundits, activists and strategists -- who've dubbed themselves the "Open Debate Coalition" -- has sent this letter to Obama and McCain asking them to make the final debate on Oct. 15th more of a, well, actual debate:


1) That the debate moderator has broad discretion to ask follow-up questions after a candidate’s answer, so the public can be fully informed about specific positions.

2) That after a “town hall” debate full of questions handpicked by the moderator, none of which were outside-the-box, you will allow Bob Schieffer to ask some Internet questions voted on by the public in the fashion outlined in our previous letter – which you agreed to. Existing technology will make this easy.

3) That, as a stipulation of the next debate, the media pool must release all 2008 debate footage into the public domain – as you agreed would be in the public interest. CNN, ABC, and NBC agreed to release video rights during the primary, and CBS agreed more recently. But Fox threatened Senator McCain for using a debate clip during the primary, and NBC invoked copyright law against Senator Obama to stifle political speech recently. The public deserves to know debate video can be reused without fear of breaking the law.

4) That you agree to work with the Open Debate Coalition after the election to reform or create an alternative to the Commission on Presidential Debates, so that the debate process is transparent and accountable to the public. Despite both of your agreement with the open debate principles, the Commission did nothing to implement them – or even to engage in dialogue about potential implementation. Also, the “31-page memo of understanding” with debate rules is nowhere on the Commission’s website, and has not been turned over despite requests.

I'm disappointed they don't mention the fact that debates ought to acknowledge that third-party candidates for president exist in this country. But perhaps that belongs in a letter to this august body.

Stop by Lawrence Lessig's blog for more information about the coalition.

Jeremy Gantz was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012. His January 2011 cover story for the magazine, "Terrorist by Association," was selected as a finalist for the Molly National Journalism Award 2012. He is now a contributing editor to the magazine, focusing on labor issues.

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