If all the major TV networks got together and decided to televise a presidential debate restricted to Republican nominee Donald Trump and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, while barring Democrat Hillary Clinton, it would be recognized as an act of media bias. But what if the debates this fall are restricted to just Trump and Clinton? That, too, needs to be recognized as an intentional act of media exclusion.
Since 1988, televised presidential and vice-presidential debates have been controlled by a private organization with no official status: the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission grew out of a deal cut in the 1980s by GOP and Democratic leaders. Today, even though the U.S. public largely distrusts the two major parties’ presidential candidates, TV networks seem willing to let them again dictate the terms of debate, including who gets to participate.
Presidential debates have been televised in every campaign since 1976. (They rarely happened before then; the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 were an exception.) From 1976 through 1984, they were sponsored and run by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. In 1980, the League insisted on including independent candidate John Anderson.
In 1985, the national chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, signed an 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.”
In February 1987, the two announced the formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates, with themselves as co-chairs. Their joint press release called the new group “bipartisan.” According to the New York Times, Fahrenkopf indicated at their press conference that the CPD was not likely to favor including third-party candidates, while Kirk said he personally believed they should be excluded, as it was “my responsibility to strengthen the two-party system.”
When the CPD took control in 1988, the League of Women Voters announced it would no longer sponsor debates “because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions.”
Since then, TV networks have abandoned any role as journalistic decision-makers and let the self-appointed CPD and the major-party campaigns control the debates, including their format and who gets to ask questions. The only third-party candidate ever included was billionaire Ross Perot in 1992.
Public pressure is needed to get the TV networks to recognize that they are at a crossroads: Will they act journalistically and independently in the interests of democracy—or will they continue to be dictated to by a commission whose unabashed mission since 1987 has been to protect a two-party duopoly?
A protest is planned at the first debate, on Sept. 26 at Hofstra University on Long Island, and RootsAction (a group I co-founded) has collected almost 20,000 signatures on a petition to expand eligibility for the debates. That petition urges including candidates who are on enough state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning, if they either “register at 5 percent in national public opinion polls OR register a majority in national public opinion polls asking eligible voters which candidates they would like to see included.” That formula would probably enable Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a physician and health-care activist from Massachusetts, to participate.
American politics have changed dramatically since the 1980s. According to Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans identifying as political independents has been at record highs for five years, at 42 percent in 2015. Democrats are at their lowest point in the poll’s history, just 29 percent, while Republicans are very near their low, at 26 percent. Both major-party candidates have record-high unfavorability ratings in polls, with Clinton at 55 percent unfavorable in the latest Real Clear Politics polling average and Trump at 59 percent.
Mainstream TV networks are fully aware of the dissatisfaction with the major-party candidates, and their polls now often include Johnson and Stein — who offer stark policy alternatives to Clinton and Trump. In polls taken in August by NBC News, CNN and ABC News, the Libertarian was backed by 8–11 percent of respondents, with Stein getting 4–5 percent. An August McClatchy-Marist poll found both third-party nominees ahead of Trump among registered voters under 30, with Johnson at 23 percent, Stein at 16 percent, and Trump at only 9 percent.
The last time there were two such strong third-party candidates was in 2000, with consumer advocate Ralph Nader on the left and pugnacious pundit Patrick Buchanan on the far right. Polls showed solid majorities of the voting public (64–25 percent in one poll) wanted to see them included in a four-way presidential debate. But the CPD had erected a new barrier: These well-known candidates could not join the debates unless they were polling at 15 percent.
That barrier was not aimed at eliminating “nonviable candidates,” but to prevent an outsider from becoming viable. In the 1998 gubernatorial election in Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio and the Minnesota League of Women Voters chapter had included third-party candidate Jesse Ventura in their series of gubernatorial debates, though he was at only 10 percent in polls before the debates began. Ventura, a “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” former pro wrestler who was mayor of a Minneapolis suburb, won the election with 37 percent of the votes.
In the interests of democracy, the best option for the networks would be to tell the CPD and major-party campaigns: “We will no longer automatically exclude candidates outside the Democratic and Republican parties, and we will televise debates controlled by journalists that include all four candidates: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. If Trump or Clinton balk, we’ll leave their podium empty.”
Jeff Cohen is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He co-founded the online activism group RootsAction.org in 2011 and founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.
Voices From Outside
Hofstra University’s normally tranquil campus will once again be the site of vocal protests on Sept. 26, when demonstrators descend on Long Island to demand their preferred candidates have a spot on stage at the first of three presidential debates this fall.
It’s becoming an American tradition.
In 2008, horse-mounted Nassau County Police officers trampled members of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War who were protesting outside Hofstra to voice dissatisfaction with the pro-war positions of both the Republican and Democratic candidates. Three peace activists were hospitalized, 15 arrested.
Four years later, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate Cheri Honkala were detained and shackled to chairs for eight hours in a Nassau County police station. Their crime: attempting to enter the debate area and refusing to clear out when security blocked their way.
This time around, Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson and, again, the Green Party’s Stein are calling to be included in the debate. Polls indicate the American people want to give them a chance. Seventy-six percent of respondents to a Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll said they support the inclusion of third-party candidates in the debates.
Activists with the Green Party are planning to hold a rally at Hofstra. Stein will be there. According to the calendar on his website Johnson won’t. He’ll be hosting a viewing party at the Railyard Sports Lounge in Appomattox, V.A. that evening but his supporters will likely turn up.
Of course most of the public won’t see what transpires outside Hofstra’s auditorium. More than 65 million people watched the first presidential debate four years ago and ratings will likely be high again as the American public tunes in to watch a Clinton-Trump trainwreck. More viewers, doesn’t necessarily mean they like what they see. Candidates from the two major parties each have unfavorable ratings that exceed 50 percent.
— Indypendent Staff