Left, Right Link Up for Openness in Debates

Politics

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

Page 2 of 2

Set the video free

The second issue is around the footage from the debate. The debates air
live, and once they are over, the only way to see the footage again is if a
news outlet plays it. Some clips will undoubtedly end up on YouTube but in
the past, the networks have always held on to the footage.

So the second wish of the advocacy group is to have access to all of the debate footage. “Now we’re in the Internet era, where the networks can put certain clips up. But the questions is, ‘Can I take a 30 second clip and share that on a blog without being sued for copyright infringement?,’ or take 5 clips and make a mash up video,” said Green.

“Nobody should be deemed a lawbreaker for wanting to discuss the debate
online or using the clips,” he added.

An effort to get the debate video released started last year, and CNN,
NBC and ABC did release their footage. Fox News did not. But the difference
here is the Presidential debates are done by pooling of resources so the
debates appear on multiple networks. “They could make a decision in an hour
if they want to,” said Green.

Lessig has contacted campaigns, and both parties said they expect to hear
back from the two campaigns, if not tonight then shortly. “Given folks are
in agreement [about releasing the video], we hope this is viewed as common
sense and the campaigns respond affirmatively,” said Kralik.

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