News Release

“Debates” — or “Televised Joint Appearances”?

The original "Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances" does not use the word "debates."

The original “Memorandum of Agreement on Presidential Candidate Joint Appearances” does not use the word “debates.”

Green Party candidate Jill Stein writes in USA Today: “The Democrats and Republicans should not exclude their competitors. The debate commission is a deception created by the parties to keep competition out. It undermines democracy for two parties to silence their competition. In 1988, the League of Women Voters warned the parties would ‘perpetrate a fraud on the American voter’ and refused to be ‘an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.'”

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson writes in the New York Daily News: “The two parties are rigging the debates“: “What’s different this year is the exceedingly large portion of the population … who are deeply dissatisfied with the Democratic and Republican party nominees.” A USA Today poll recently found that 76 percent of the public wants third party candidates on a majority of state ballots “included in the debates.”

Lester Holt of NBC will moderate tonight’s event. Others will be moderated by CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox personnel. Steve Scully of C-SPAN is “backup moderator.”

Tucker is an independent D.C.-based journalist who writes at He has recently written a series of pieces on the Commission on Presidential Debates, including “How Presidential Debates Became ‘a Fraud on the American Voter.’” See the pieces here.

Tucker said today: “While no Memorandum of Understanding has been made public this year, a leaked 2012 MOU between the Obama and Romney campaigns outlined: ‘The moderator will not ask follow-up questions or comment on … questions asked by the audience or the answers of the candidates.'” [PDF]

Tucker notes that “Fed up with the [League of Women Voters, which had organized presidential debates in the 1970s and early 80s] independence, the two parties hatched a plan. In 1987, they created the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), with the Democratic and Republican chairmen serving as the organization’s co-chairs. …

“The resulting debates were ‘phony, part of an unconscionable fraud,’ said CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. It’s ‘a charade,’ said CNN’s Bernard Shaw, ‘these were not debates.’ …

“With the civic-minded League out, money poured in. Anheuser-Bush and Philip Morris, among other corporations, provided large donations, and in return were featured prominently at the CPD debates.”

The co-chairmen of the CPD are Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr. and Michael D. McCurry. Fahrenkopf was chair of the Republican National Committee when the CPD was founded, and he represents gambling interests. Tucker notes that “Fahrenkopf’s Democratic counterpart, McCurry, is also a lobbyist. After serving as Bill Clinton’s press secretary, McCurry went on to lobby for, among others, telecoms seeking to kill net neutrality. The other 15 CPD board members are mostly party insiders and donors.”

JEFF COHEN, jcohen[at]
Cohen is founder of the media watch group FAIR, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College, and recently wrote the piece “Why Not Expand the Presidential Debates?” — which notes:

— “Televised Joint Appearances”:  In 1985, the national chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, signed a remarkable agreement that referred to future debates as “nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political parties … It is our conclusion that future joint appearances should be principally and jointly sponsored and conducted by the Republican and Democratic Committees.”

— “Exclude Third-Party Candidates”: In February 1987, Democratic Party chair Kirk and GOP chair Fahrenkopf together issued a press release and held a D.C. news conference to announce the formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates (“Commission on Joint Appearances” apparently didn’t sound right) — with themselves as co-chairs. The press release called the new group “bipartisan.” According to the New York Times, Fahrenkopf indicated at the news conference that the CPD was “not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates.” The Times reported: “Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third party candidates from the debates.” The newspaper quoted Kirk: “As a party chairman, it’s my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.”