Thursday, September 10, 2015

Control of televised presidential debates was seized in 1988 from League of Women voters by the two major parties and corporate sponsors. Commission selects moderators, sets rules, and picks locations-Center for Public Integrity

9/18/2008, "Two-party debates," Center for Pubic Integrity, Josh Israel

"A Corporate-Funded, Party-Created Commission Decides Who Debates — and Who Stays Home"
"On the night of September 30, 2004, few of the estimated 62.4 million viewers watching President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry square off on national television likely took any notice when moderator Jim Lehrer announced, "These debates are sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates." Many voters tuning in for arguably the most important 90 minutes of the race probably didn't know what the Commission is, either: a largely secretive tax-exempt organization, created and run by former chairmen of the two major parties, funded by a small group of unidentified major donors, and designed, it seems, to exclude nearly all third-party candidates.
The Commission began hosting televised debates in 1988, but it wasn’t the first to do so. Sixty-six million viewers watched the nation’s premiere televised presidential debate, a September 26, 1960, primetime event featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. It was paid for by three major television networks, but broadcast regulations prevented them from continuing their sponsorship in the next several elections. In 1976, the independent League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to citizen education, took over. 

The League hosted three debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and one between their running mates, and sponsored debates in the 1980 and 1984 elections as well. The debates became part of the quadrennial election process, but the League’s management style ruffled some feathers among party insiders who wanted more control of the process. Republican David Norcross, who helped form the Commission, called the League’s debate organizers “too dictatorial” and criticized them for “ignoring or avoiding the politics of the whole situation.”

Michael Badnarik, the 2004 Libertarian Party nominee, was arrested for trespassing while trying to enter the debate grounds.

Then, as Connie Rice, a prominent Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer and commentator on National Public Radio, characterizes it, “The debates were hijacked.” In 1988, the two major political parties seized controlagainst the wishes of the League of Women Voters. The Democratic and Republican national committees argued in a joint press release that their co-sponsorship would “better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process and, most important of all . . . institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential debate process.” Rather than trying to change the way the League ran the debates, the two national party chairmen simply “commissioned” their own “independent” debate entity — and put themselves in charge.

With that, the Commission on Presidential Debates came into existence, led by then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and then-Republican National Committee Chairman Frank H. Fahrenkopf Jr. They hired one full-time employee, a Republican former Senate staffer named Janet Brown. The three have led the Commission since its inception, with a board of directors made up primarily of committed partisans from the two major parties. The Commission sponsors and produces the debates, picks the locations, sets the rules, selects the moderators, and determines which candidates participate.

Corporate sponsorship

Brown’s annual salary ($175,000 as of 2004 and 2005, paid even in non-election years) the organization’s operating expenses and debate production costs are paid by a small number of major donors. In 2004, the Commission took in over $4.1 million, more than 93 percent of which came from just six contributors. On the donor list provided to the Center for Public Integrity, the Commission blanked out the names of all six. Nonprofit organizations are not legally required to make this information public.

The organization’s website identifies 11 “national sponsorsof the 2004 debates, a majority of which are corporations. They include three airlines, a cable television network, a company that helps businesses and governments outsource information technology, and the self-crowned king of the beer-making business, Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., which also sponsored several other debates in previous years. No stranger to a good party, Anheuser-Busch supplemented its quadrennial contributions to the Commission in the hours before the October 8, 2004, debate, in its hometown of St. Louis, by treating members of the media and other VIPs to a tent party featuring sirloin steak, stuffed portobello mushrooms, and, of course, plenty of beer.

The sponsorships have drawn significant criticism, most ardently from Open Debates, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that describes itself as working to “ensure that the presidential debates serve the American people first.” Instead of serving the people, the group argues, the Commission serves its corporate interests. Take the 1992 debates, it points out, during which the Commission allowed its $250,000 sponsor, Philip Morris, to hang a promotional banner in an area visible in post-debate interviews. And for its $550,000 contribution in 2000, Anheuser-Busch was permitted at the event to distribute pamphlets against taxes on beer. (According to the beer industry’s lobbying group, the federal excise tax on beer has remained unchanged since 1991.)

Brown concedes that the Commission’s reliance on corporate sponsorship “seems to be . . . extraordinarily controversial,” but she told the Center that the Commission is similar to most nonprofits in its fundraising efforts — it seeks funding from foundations, corporations, individuals, and the debate sites themselves. She insists that no funder has ever asked for a topic or question to be introduced in the debates.

Fifteen-percent solution

The Commission also seems beholden to an interest of its own — one of exclusivity. In 2004, while reporters were treated to Anheuser-Busch’s hospitality, while John Kerry and George W. Bush argued over flip-flops, Iraq, and health care, several other presidential candidates were not allowed to join in the festivities. Though more than 1.2 million Americans cast their votes in 2004 for a candidate other than Bush or Kerry, the Commission steadfastly refused to allow independent candidate Ralph Nader, who had received more than 2.8 million votes in the 2000 election, Libertarian Party nominee Michael Badnarik, Green Party nominee David Cobb, or Constitution Party nominee Michael Peroutka the chance to participate in the debates. The reason? The candidates did not receive at least 15 percent in national opinion polling prior to the debates.

Back in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot was the only “third party” presidential candidate to ever participate in the Commission’s debates. He wasn’t invited back during his second run, in 1996, despite receiving nearly 19 percent of the vote the prior cycle. The Commission determined that Perot’s 1996 campaign lacked a “realistic chance” of winning, citing, among other reasons, the fact that his decision to accept public campaign financing meant he would not be able to spend large sums of his own money as he had in 1992. Charging that his constitutional rights had been violated, the Texas billionaire filed a lawsuit against the Commission to gain access. It did not back down and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected his arguments.

But Perot’s suit and subsequent scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission demonstrated weaknesses in the debate commission’s position. In 1999, then-Commission Vice Chairman Newton Minow co-wrote a report recommending new criteria for who could participate in the debates that would no longer rely on the assessment of the pundits, whom he referred to as “an aristocracy of unelected analysts and observers.” He advocated a straightforward, transparent approach free from manipulation. One year later, the Commission acted on his suggestions by formally establishing guidelines for participation in the debates at a 15 percent polling threshold. To debate, a candidate must now show an average of 15 percent support in five selected national public opinion polls prior to the each debate. “You might not like the 15 percent threshold,” Antonia Hernandez, a member of the Commission’s board of directors, argued to Open Debates founder George Farah, “but it’s clearly articulated, and if a person meets it, then that candidate gets in.”

Private organizations like the Commission have a legal right to take money from whomever they want and to exclude people from their events. But the concern among the Commission’s critics is whether, as Open Debates argues, the events once dedicated to public education have become “a series of glorified bipartisan news conferences” for the parties, hinged on the 15 percent rule."...


Board of Directors, Commission on Presidential Debates


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