The Commission on Presidential Debates: Not the Unpartisan Organization It Appears

On January 6, 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) announced that there would be three Presidential debates and one Vice Presidential debate in October 2000 at different locations around the country.

The Commission has an official sounding name, but it is, in fact, a private organization run by the Republican and Democratic Parties, led by co-chairmen Paul G. Kirk, Jr. (Democrat) and Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. (Republican) and heavily funded by corporate money, which in 1996 included the tobacco and auto companies.
Both Mr. Kirk and Mr. Fahrenkopf represent corporate clients and the latter is well known as a chief lobbyist for the gambling industry.

The Commission laid down three criteria for determining which candidates are invited onto the debates that are sure to be nationally televised on several networks.

These criteria are (1) the candidate must meet the constitutional requirements of being at least 35 years of age, a natural born citizen and resident of the U.S. for fourteen years; and is otherwise eligible under the Constitution;

(2) the candidate must be on enough state ballots to have “at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority in the 2000 general election;”

(3) the candidate must have “a level of support of at least 15% (fifteen percent) of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.”

The five polling groups include the joint ventures between newspapers such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the television networks — NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN.

Mr. Kirk and Mr. Fahrenkopf declared themselves satisfied that their “non-partisan” Commission has established an approach which “is both clear and predictable.” Unfortunately, it is too clear and predictable for smaller party Presidential candidates who will be excluded from the debates leaving only the two major party candidates having the field to themselves. The Commission is really not “non-partisan”; it is “bi-partisan” and designed to protect as it did in 1996 the debates for its dominant Two Party System.

These exclusionary rules are nothing new. For years the Republican and Democratic Parties have conspired in one state legislature after another to enact laws that create huge barriers (often tens of thousands of signatures on petitions plus other harassments) to make sure that small political starts never have a chance to have a chance. These barriers are unique in comparison to the easy ballot access requirements in Canada and several other western nations.

So the two Parties are acting in their grand exclusionary tradition — one which in the business world would subject them to antitrust prosecution.

There is yet another convoluted complication to the Commission’s year 2000 criteria — the reliance on polling organizations whose news and editorial bureaus can determine whether to report or not to report on Third Party candidates. If a near news blackout prevails, then the polling arm can report that the candidates doesn’t register much in the polls.

Why would the commercial news media agree to such an arrangement and expose itself to legitimate charges that it is compromising its alleged detachment or objectivity? The Commission’s arrangement inexorably draws these media organizations into a partisan pit. Indeed, some of the moderators for the debates may come from these same news organizations. The matrix becomes more intricate.

When the Commission was asked at the news conference “why fifteen percent?,” the reply was that was their fairest judgment in order to keep the debates manageable. No one representing the executive suites of the mass media was around to answer “why do these giant media corporations leave the number of nationallytelevised debates up to the two major parties?”

After all the time devoted to soap operas, sports, game shows and advertisements, is there no time within these very profitable television and radio stations, which use our public airwaves free of charge, to air more accessible debates in the fall?

Hardly had Mr. Kirk and Mr. Fahrenkopf left their heavily attended news conference when Anheuser-Busch company announced that it had been selected by the Commission as “a national sponsor of the four presidential debates. . . as well as the sole sponsor of the debate schedules for October 17 at Washington University in St. Louis.” (The latter will be paid for with a contribution of $550,000).

Imagine a Beer Company financing the Presidential debates in the world’s longest lasting, richest democracy. Will Anheuser-Busch haul out the free kegs at Saint Louis’ bars in celebration?

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