Rigging the Debates: September 24, 2004
ANNOUNCER: From our studios in New York, David Brancaccio and Bill Moyers.
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. There are an awful lot of voters out there who say they're going to wait to make up their mind until after the candidates debate.
They'll get their chance Thursday night. President Bush and Senator Kerry will meet at the University of Miami for their first debate. The thing is, even the form of these debates is debatable.
MOYERS: Which brings me, David, to a book I read years ago that changed the way I see the world. The title is THE IMAGE and in it the historian Daniel Boorstin argued that so much is being staged and scripted in American life that we are losing touch with reality. He described it as the triumph of pseudo-events counterfeit happenings, fabrications, replacing what's real with illusions of truth.
I think of Daniel Boorstin every four years on the eve of the presidential debates. These debates have become exactly what he found so deeply troubling the packaging of politicians and politics to create a phony transcendence that simulates democracy while subverting it.
Here's our report, produced by our colleague Peter Meryash.
MOYERS: They've been dubbed the Super Bowl of politics. At no other time during a campaign do so many millions of Americans focus on the choice before them. Debates can make or break a candidate.
John Kennedy said he wouldn't have won the presidency in 1960 if he had not debated Richard Nixon.
Jimmy Carter said he won in 1976 because of his debates with Gerald Ford and then, Carter says, he lost in 1980 because of his debate with Ronald Reagan.
When Carter squared off with Reagan, sixty percent of American TV households were watching. But over the past quarter century, there's been a big change. During Gore versus Bush four years ago, less than thirty percent of TV households tuned in.
George Farah thinks he knows what's happening.
FARAH: When you have stultified debates that produce scripted sound bites rather than authentic discussion, the American people are gonna turn off their television sets.
MOYERS: Farah founded a nonpartisan organization called Open Debates. He says Americans are not getting the presidential debates we deserve.
FARAH: The American people want to hear and see popular candidates discuss the important issues in an unscripted manner. That's what's at stake. Whether or not we're gonna have the right to witness an important conversation.
MOYERS: And why aren't we getting that kind of discussion between the candidates now?
FARAH: Because the Commission on Presidential Debates secretly submits to the Republican and the Democratic candidates and allows these candidates to sanitize the debate format, excludes popular voices, avoid discussing critical issues.
MOYERS: Farah has written a book laying out his case. It's been endorsed across the political spectrum from the conservative patriarch Paul Weyrich of the Heritage Foundation to the Texas populist Jim Hightower.
What unites them in outrage is the Commission on Presidential Debates, the official sounding, supposedly nonpartisan sponsor.
Don't be fooled, says Farah.
FARAH: The Commission on Presidential Debates, although it claims to be a nonpartisan organization, was created by the Republican and Democratic parties for the Republican and Democratic parties. By design, it was established to submit and conceal the wishes and demands of the Democratic/Republican nominees.
MOYERS: The result, he says, is an event tightly controlled by the candidates, a glorified press conference with rules rigged to serve the candidates, not the public.
Listen to moderator Jim Lehrer as he opened the 2000 debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore:
LEHRER [10/3/00]: Tonight, we'll have the candidates at podiums. No answer to a question can exceed two minutes. The candidates under their rules may not question each other directly.
MOYERS: Those were the rules the candidates demanded. For a reason.
MOYERS: You say that what makes these debates so valuable to voters confrontation, spontaneity, audience size terrifies the candidates. Why?
FARAH: Because if the candidates were forced to be confrontational, if the candidates were forced to engage in spontaneous discourse, if the candidates were forced to confront issues they were uncomfortable with, they might make a mistake.
MOYERS: That's just what happened to the first President Bush back in 1992, during the town hall debate with challengers Ross Perot and Bill Clinton.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?
BUSH: I think the national debt affects everybody.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: You personally.
BUSH: Obviously it has a lot to do with interest rates.
SIMPSON: She's saying, "you personally."
AUDIENCE QUESTION: You, on a personal basis, how has it affected you?
SIMPSON: Has it affected you personally?
FARAH: The President was very flustered with the question. He didn't know how to handle it. What do you mean affect me?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: What I'm saying is…
BUSH: I'm not sure I get... Help me with the question and I'll try to answer it.
FARAH: Well, this revealed much to the public that he had a very difficult time relating to everyday working people and how they are affected possibly by the budget deficit. And it's precisely because of that that the candidates decided afterwards for the next two election cycles and in this election cycle to manipulate and sanitize the town hall format.
MOYERS: The candidates got their way.
LEHRER: The audience participants are bound by the following rule. They shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion. And the questioner's microphone will be turned off after he or she completes asking the question.
MOYERS: What's more, town hall questions would have to be submitted in advance.
FARAH: They had every member in the town hall audience write their questions on index cards and give them to Jim Lehrer.
He would point to the individual and have him ask the question. The consequence, of course, was no matter how good a person Jim Lehrer is, he's still asking all the questions.
The audience members are just there as props. He's still picking the ones to be asked. So it shows the sanitization of the town hall format, showed the evolution of how the candidates are increasingly controlling whatever they can control to avoid mistakes.
MOYERS: Let's go back to the second debate in 2000. You say that was probably the most agreeable Presidential debate in history.
BUSH: Yeah, I agree.
GORE: I agree with that. The Governor and I agree.
BUSH: I think the administration did the right thing.
GORE: I agree with that.
LEHRER: You have a different view of that?
BUSH: No, I don't really.
MOYERS: Gore and Bush agreed to send more money on anti-ballistic missiles, on mandatory testing in schools.
GORE: I agree with Governor Bush that we should have new accountability. Testing of students…
MOYERS: On training Colombian troops for the drug war.
BUSH: You know, I supported the administration in Colombia.
MOYERS: They agreed that we should prevent gays from being allowed to marry.
BUSH: A marriage should be between a man and a woman.
LEHRER: Vice President Gore?
GORE: I agree with that.
MOYERS: They agreed to sign a racial profiling law, to bail out Mexico with IMF loans.
LEHRER: Is there any difference?
GORE: I haven't heard a big difference in the last few exchanges.
BUSH: Well I think it's hard to tell…
MOYERS: And later on in that debate, Bush said…
BUSH: It seems like we're having a great love fest tonight.
MOYERS: "We're having a great love fest right now." You remember that?
FARAH: Absolutely I remember that. The point of the Presidential debate is to highlight the differences in authentic discussion for the American people. And when you have a debate like you see in 2000 with a moderator posing very simple questions and with the candidates agreeing on those questions and actually not being able to address each other, you end up with 37 percent of the answers and the candidates agreeing with each other.
And when Bush said we're having a great love fest it doesn't just relate to the fact that on the various issues they're agreeing on, it also relates to the fact that they're not even confronting each other in debate. It should be a more confrontational process with Candidate A saying, "I disagree with that point. I challenge that point." And in 2000 when Gore tried to challenge President Bush and tried to raise a question to President Bush, the moderator said, "Now, now, Vice-President. You have to stop. You're violating the rules."
MODERATOR: Both of you have now violated, excuse me. Both of you have now violated your own rules. Hold that thought.
GORE: I've been trying so hard not to.
MODERATOR: I know, I know. But under your all's rules you are not allowed to ask each other a question. I let you do it a moment ago.
MODERATOR: Now you just… twice, sorry.
GORE: That's an interruption, by the way.
MODERATOR: That's an interruption, okay. But anyhow, you just did it so now…
BUSH: I'm sorry. I apologize, Mr. Vice President.
MODERATOR: You aren't allowed to do that either, see?
FARAH: I thought this was outrageous. This is a debate. This is not a little conversation going on in a living room. This is a debate. We're supposed to have the candidates talking to each other.
These aren't gods. These are our public servants. And it's their responsibility to discuss something in front of each other.
MOYERS: So, what happens if there's a moment of spontaneous debate?
GORE: Affirmative action doesn't mean quotas. Are you for it without quotas?
BUSH: I may not be for your version, Mr. Vice President, but I'm for what I just described to the lady. She heard my answer.
GORE: Are you for what the Supreme Court says is a constitutional way of having affirmative action?
MODERATOR: Let's go on to another…
GORE: I think that speaks for itself.
BUSH: No, it doesn't speak for itself, Mr. Vice President, it speaks for the fact that there are certain rules in this that we all agree to, but evidently rules don't mean anything.
MOYERS: Do you think the people watching knew that the rules had been written by the two parties?
FARAH: Oh, of course not. They had no idea. They thought the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose name sounds like a government commission, it sounds like a lovely agency that was commissioned or chartered by Congress. They thought this: organizations had decided that these rules best served the public interest. They had no idea that behind closed doors leading negotiators hand-picked by the candidates were determining that the candidates could not even ask themselves questions.
MOYERS: The Commission is in fact a private corporation, founded by the then chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national parties. They're still running the show.
FARAH: Every four years, the Commission on Presidential Debate publishes candidate selection criteria and proposes debate formats in order to comply with federal election law.
But questions concerning debate format and debate schedule are ultimately resolved behind closed doors between negotiators for the Republican and Democratic nominees.
MOYERS: That wasn't the case in the beginning. The first televised presidential debates, between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, were sponsored by the networks.
President Lyndon Johnson refused to debate his opponent, Barry Goldwater, in 1964 and the next debate didn't occur until 1976. By then, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters had become the sponsor.
MOYERS: In the interest of full disclosure I have to acknowledge that I was a moderator in 1980 I think, probably before you were born. At that time, the debates were under the auspices of the League of Women Voters. And I have to say thanks to the League, this sort of thing was not happening.
FARAH: The League of Women Voters was a genuinely nonpartisan organization that fought on behalf of the American people. It took its role as a sponsor seriously. In 1980, when John B. Anderson bolted the Republican Party to run as an Independent for the Presidency of the United States, the League decided to invite John Anderson to participate in the Presidential debate.
MOYERS: Republican John Anderson had served in Congress for almost 20 years before becoming an independent candidate for President.
FARAH: President Jimmy Carter at the time refused to debate Anderson because he thought Anderson would take more votes away from him. So the League was confronted with a dilemma. Does it capitulate to the President of the United States? Or does it invite an Independent candidate the American people want to see. Well, the League had guts and it went forward and it invited Anderson to participate in a 1980 Presidential debate even though President Carter refused to show up in front of 50 million viewers.
MOYERS: In 1984, four years later, the League had to stand up once again to intimidation from the major party candidates. Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale kept vetoing every journalist the League proposed as a questioner.
FARAH: The campaigns got together and tried to get rid of all the difficult questions. What did the League do? Well, instead of silently accepting this reality it held a press conference in Washington. And it lambasted the candidates for, quote, "totally abusing the process."
MOYERS: Moderator Barbara Walters was left without a full panel of journalists.
WALTERS: The candidates were given a list of almost 100 qualified journalists from all the media and could agree on only these three fine journalists. As moderator and on behalf of my fellow journalists, I very much regret as does the League of Women Voters, that this situation has occurred.
MOYERS: So there came this moment when these uppity women at the League of Women Voters said to the Presidential candidates, "You can't write the rules." And the two parties then did what?
FARAH: The parties were sick and tired of a women's organization telling their boys who they had to participate with, in what format, with whom, and what questions would have to be asked.
MOYERS: So the two parties got together.
FARAH: Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush negotiated the first Memoranda of Understanding in 1988. So they hand it to the League.
The League says, "What is this? We don't do this. We don't put our respected name and trusted name onto a secret document you've negotiated. We refuse to implement this."
NEUMAN: The League of Women Voters is announcing today that we have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public. Under these circumstances, the League is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debates.
FARAH: It's precisely because the League of Women Voters was willing to fight on behalf of the public interest and refused to comply with the secret demands of the Republican and Democratic nominees, that the parties got together and created their own compliant commission.
MOYERS: And that's how the Commission on Presidential Debates came into being. It has supervised every presidential debate since 1988.
But not until the publication of George Farah's book this year had anyone but a handful of insiders seen the secret contracts for the last three debates, negotiated between the candidates and then handed to the debate commission.
Those contracts were leaked to Farah.
MOYERS: This is one of those Memorandum of Understanding that you got.
MOYERS: This is the 1996… the "agreement," it calls itself. Describe this to me.
FARAH: It's a binding contract.
And this contract dictates who will participate, who will ask the questions, the heights of the podiums, every detail conceivable.
It's a glorified bipartisan press conference. They get a question from a moderator that they selected and they can predict… they've memorized the response to. They issue a memorized sound bite which fits a very nice perfect 90-second response slot that has been stipulated in the contract.
Their opponent cannot challenge their answer because they're prohibited by the contract. The moderator can't challenge their answer because they can't ask follow-up questions.
Imagine for a moment if we could have a debate in which the candidates actually responded to each other. That's what a debate is. Person A makes a statement. Person B responds to the statement.
MOYERS: Dictionary, Webster I think, calls it a contentious exchange between two parties.
FARAH: A contentious exchange. Well, I haven't seen a contentious exchange in 17 years since the Commission of Presidential Debates has hosted these forums because the candidates can't even communicate. This is not a confrontation. And the American people sitting back at home don't know why these candidates can't communicate with each other. Don't know why they're just reciting the same memorized sound bites that they're reciting in their 30-second ads. And they're turning off their television sets.
MOYERS: Something else the public didn't know: the secret contracts gave the Republican and Democratic candidates veto power over other participants.
In 1992, the Republicans believed candidate Ross Perot would hurt Bill Clinton's chances and the Democrats didn't want to alienate Perot supporters, so the two parties invited the feisty Texan to take part in the debates.
PEROT: Now, all these fellows with thousand-dollar suits and alligator shoes running up and down the halls of Congress that make policy now, the lobbyists, the PAC guys, the foreign lobbyists, and what-have-you, they'll be over there in the Smithsonian, you know because we're going to get rid of them.
MOYERS: But four years later, in 1996, neither side wanted Perot there.
FARAH: 1996 is a wonderful example of what happens when the candidates control the Presidential debate process. Bill Clinton, who was the Democratic nominee, and Bob Dole, who was the Republican nominee, hatched a secret agreement to exclude Ross Perot from the Presidential debates. Bob Dole desperately wanted Perot excluded because he thought that Perot would take more votes away from him. And Clinton wanted what George Stephanopolous called a non-event. The smallest possible audience because he was virtually 20 points in the poll and didn't want anything to shake up the race. So they hatched a secret agreement.
MOYERS: That secret agreement specifically spelled out only Bill Clinton and Bob Dole would debate. So Ross Perot was left out in the cold.
Four years later, in 2000, the Republican and Democratic candidates kept Pat Buchanan out of the debates too, although he had qualified for more than 12 million dollars in public financing.
Ralph Nader, who had made it onto the ballots in 43 states and the District of Columbia, was not only kept out of the debates but was prevented from getting into a debate site even though he showed up with a credential.
NADER: We all have the same so-called badge. Everyone got in but me.
MOYERS: Wouldn't including not just Nader and Pat Buchanan but the Libertarian candidate and other third parties that might arise, wouldn't that lead to a kind of chaos in our political system, a kind of anarchy?
FARAH: Well, that's what the Commission on Presidential Debates would like the American people to believe. They claim that hundreds of candidates run for office every year. And they're right.
Hundreds do run like Billy Joe Clegg of the Clegg Won't Pull Your Leg Party and Jeff Costa of the Crustacean Liberation Party whose entire platform is committed to the liberation of crabs and lobsters from our nation's oceans and seas.
MOYERS: Farah says you don't have to open the doors to just anybody. There are ways to include viable, legitimate third-party candidates. And democracy is served when we do.
FARAH: Third-party candidates don't regularly win federal elections. They don't. But they raise critical issues that the major parties eventually co-opt.
Third parties are responsible for the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, pubic power, public education, social security, unemployment compensation, the direct election of senators, the formation of labor unions. The list goes on and on. And these candidates before Presidential debates were ever established raised these issues in public forums.
Millions of Americans listened to their ideas, read about them in newspapers, heard about them on the radio. And it forced the Republican and Democratic parties to co-opt these issues and integrate them into law. Now the American people never get to hear about an issue and the third-party candidate cannot break the bipartisan conspiracy of silence on critical issues the American people care about.
MOYERS: That happened when Ross Perot was excluded from the '96 presidential debates. But he had the money to fight back with ads of his own.
1996 PEROT INFOMERCIAL: 76% of Americans want Ross Perot in tonight's debate. The Republicans and Democrats are desperate to keep Ross out. But why? Maybe it's because the eleven big companies that fund the debate commission pump millions into forcing NAFTA through congress and are giving millions more to the Democrats and Republicans. That trade deal has cost more than half a million American jobs.
MOYERS: In the first three debates in 2000, you never heard the word corporation mentioned?
FARAH: Never, not once.
MOYERS: There was no reference to the World Trade Organization, to free trade or to labor.
FARAH: When you have two parties who receive 80% of their contributions from business interests excluding other voices who are critical of corporate power, and excluding moderators and panelists who might question them sharply on their relationship with corporate power, you end up with a Presidential debate that entirely excludes possibly the most important or one of the most important issues confronting the American people. That is growing corporate power and how it undermines our democratic process and economic system.
MOYERS: You have a chart in your book on page 13. I suspect that most of my viewers and most of the people who will be watching the debates in a couple of weeks don't know this. That the national sponsors of the Commission on Presidential Debates include, 1992: AT&T, Atlantic Richfield, Dun & Bradstreet, Ford Motor Company, Hallmark, IBM, J.P. Morgan, Philip Morris, Prudential. 1996: Anheuser Busch, Dun & Bradstreet, Lucent Technologies, Philip Morris, Sara Lee, Sprint. In 2000, Anheuser Busch, US Airways, 3Com.
You say that this results in the debates becoming corporate carnivals.
FARAH: Yes. If you attend a debate site what you see are huge Anheuser Busch tents. Anheuser Busch girls in skimpy outfits and they're passing out beer and they're passing out pamphlets that denounce beer taxes. You have giant posters of the various corporate sponsors also passing out other materials that are promoting their goods, their products and their political issues.
MOYERS: The public at home never sees this.
FARAH: Oh, they never see this. These are the corporations who are primarily paying for the debates that tens of millions of Americans are watching. And they get to bring their clients to debate sites, entertain them. They bring them to a nice suite. And they take them to the debates and sit in the front rows of these presidential debate forums. They get tax deductions for their major contributions to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
And when I asked Frank Farenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, whether he thought it was okay for beer and tobacco companies to be hosting and sponsoring these presidential debates, he said, "Boy, you are talking to the wrong guy. I'm a lobbyist for the gambling industry."
MOYERS: George Farah says there is an alternative to partisan control of debates sponsored by corporations and run by lobbyists: a Citizens' Debate Commission. He spells it all out in the book and a lot of people have already signed on.
MOYERS: Why do you care about this so much?
FARAH: Because this is a democracy. And we have to fight on behalf of our democratic process. Our democratic process is at stake.
Your viewers have power. These are political candidates that are fighting desperately for their votes. They can demand of these candidates that they want real debates.
This is the most important country in the world. And we need to have an authentic debate so the American people can choose the most powerful human being in the world.
MOYERS: You can find out a lot more about George Farah and Open Debates by going to the NOW page at pbs.org. You'll see that they and other reform advocates are claiming some modest success this week.
For the first time in 16 years the contract between the two campaigns the memorandum of understanding has been made public. This is a copy of it. We'll post it on our Web site. And for the first time in 12 years there will be more than one moderator, the Commission, not the candidates, has chosen them. Even so, the Commission is insisting those moderators sign the agreement, to make sure no sudden journalistic urge violates the boundaries set by the candidates.
Meanwhile, a federal judge has called for an investigation into whether the Commission acted in a partisan manner when it refused to allow any third-party candidates to attend the 2000 debates. And this week the President of the National Urban League accused the Commission of organizing the debates to keep urban and civil rights issues off the agenda. So here we go again, with what David called those debatable debates controlled by what amounts to a political cartel.
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