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Left, Right Link Up for Openness in Debates

What could possibly make liberal public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org and the conservative activist group American Solutions for Winning the Future, headed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, come together for a common cause?

The answer: A desire to break the media's hegemony over the presidential debate process and democratize the questioning of the candidates.

The efforts of the two groups and a number of supporters resulted in the creation of the Open Debate Coalition. The coalition is headed by Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig, an outspoken advocate of progressive tech policy issues. The group also is supported by MoveOn.org, American Solutions, Instapundit.com, Craig Newmark of Craigslist fame, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, strategists from Republican and Democratic candidates and the founders of political blogs like RedState.com and OpenLeft.com.

Lessig's open letter to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) calls for the open availability of all of the footage from their three debates -- the first of which is this evening -- and for allowing citizens to ask questions of the candidates instead of just the moderators.

There are three debates scheduled between McCain and Obama. Tonight's debate is scheduled to take place in Oxford, Miss., and will be moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of "The NewsHour" on PBS. A second debate is slated to be held Tuesday, Oct. 7, in Nashville, Tenn., and will be moderated by Tom Brokaw, former evening news anchor for NBC News. The third debate will take place Wed., Oct. 15, in Hempstead, New York, and is scheduled to be moderated by Bob Schieffer, CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and host of "Face the Nation."

Additionally, there will be a debate between their vice presidential running mates, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Md.) and Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008, in St. Louis, Mo., moderated by Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent on "The NewsHour" on PBS.

The debates just plain stink

The job of choosing questions is typically left to the media host. During the primary debates, there were loud complaints from the Republican side that the hosts were asking tougher questions of Republicans than Democrats, and even setting them up for embarrassment.

In other debates, like the CNN/YouTube debate for the Democratic candidates, some questions were submitted online, but they were panned as gimmicky and not particularly informed.

Above all, many find the debates boring, so rigid in their rules as to eliminate any chance for real sparks unless a candidate steps in it, like the infamous Lloyd Bentsen/Dan Quayle "You're no Jack Kennedy" exchange in 1988.

"These are not debates. They are candidates getting up and reciting sound bites that their consultants told them to say," said Dave Kralik, director of Internet strategy for American Solutions. The 2004 Presidential debates had 34 pages of rulings down to the most ridiculous of minutiae. "There should be no rules, no moderator. Go back to a real debate and see who can really hold their own."

Demeaning the office of the President

"When you have 30 seconds answers on issues like the future of the Iraq War, you can't answer that in a substantive way. It demeans the office of the President when you reduce a debate on the issues to the level of 'Survivor', 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' and 'Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader'?" said Kralik.

Adam Green, director of strategic campaigns for MoveOn.org, said his group also advocates the beginning of a change in the debate process. The two advocate a "bubble-up" Internet technology, in which citizens can submit questions and vote up or down on other people's submissions.

Then the debate moderator can take the top 25, cull the overlapping questions, and draw from that. It would have the effect of being more substantive than the silly talking snowman at the CNN/YouTube debate.

"This is aimed at preventing overly gimmicky questions from being asked," said Green. "The public takes these issues seriously."

Kralik concurred. "What we're advocating is that people will ask questions no moderator will ask. Individuals rank and vote on the questions and you allow the wisdom of the crowds to rank and choose."

It's not like any major work needs to be done, either, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has a product, Google Moderator, which has a section for the 2008 debates. There is a separate effort, called 10 Questions also dedicated to filtering out the best questions for Presidential candidates.

Next page: Set the video free