Americans have faith in the presidential debates to be wide-ranging discussions that probe the candidates' views and hold them accountable to the public. And for much of recent history, that's what these debates were. From 1976 to 1984, the League of Women Voters held debates renowned for their fiercely independent moderators and transparent process.
But in more recent years, the debates have been held by an organization called the "Commission on Presidential Debates," (CPD) which tightly controls the process by choosing moderators and questions.
Here's one little known fact about the CPD -- it's chaired by corporate lobbyists. One of the chairmen is Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., who was once a Republican National Convention chairman but now works as a gambling industry lobbyist. The other chairman is Michael D. McCurry, who is a former press secretary for Bill Clinton. He now works as a "partner at Public Strategies Washington, Inc., where he provides counsel on communications strategies and management to corporate and non-profit clients." Given the loopholes in our lobbying laws, McCurry doesn't even have to disclose his clients, but we do know that in 2006 he spearheaded the Hands Off The Internet campaign that was designed to kill net neutrality on behalf of big telecom companies.
Every year, CPD also opens up the debates to corporate sponsors. Here's the list of this year's sponsors:
The Howard G. Buffett FoundationSheldon S. Cohen, Esq.Crowell & Moring LLPInternational Bottled Water Association (IBWA)The Kovler FundSouthwest Airlines
With a sponsorship list like that, don't be surprised if we don't see questions critical of the industries listed. But this year's list is relatively tame. In the past, the tobacco industry, AT&T, and others have all been sponsors.
Here's one last interesting tidbit about the debates. Remember the section of the vice presidential debate where moderator Martha Raddatz falsely claimed that Medicare and Social Security are going broke?
That question had us scratching our heads. But if you look at the list of CPD leadership, you'll find that Alan Simpson -- the same Alan Simpson involved in a corporate CEO-run campaign to cut Social Security, and who is a former corporate lobbyist himself -- is on its Board of Directors.
Americans want their debates to be both open and transparent. As long as the debates continue to be closely controlled by a group including corporate lobbyists and corporations, it's difficult to say that they will be. For more on the closed process that creates the presidential debates, see this morning's Democracy Now! interview with democracy activist George Farah.