How the Two Parties Lock Out Alternative Voices From the Debates

August 17, 2016

Media critic Jeff Cohen says there should be a full spectrum debate with varying points of view beyond the two candidates who are at their height of unpopularity

Media critic Jeff Cohen says there should be a full spectrum debate with varying points of view beyond the two candidates who are at their height of unpopularity



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Story Transcript

KIM BROWN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown.

The presidential debate schedule has been announced and the first faceoff between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be Monday September 26th at Hofstra University. But hold on now. The Green Party and Libertarian party have nominated to seek the White House too. So will they be invited to participate in the debates? Should they be allowed to debate if the major party’s candidates – even if they don’t stand a chance of winning?

Jeff Cohen is a media critic and a lecturer. He’s also a founding director of the Parks Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College where he’s an associate professor of Journalism. His latest book is Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. Jeff joins us today from Woodstock, New York.

Jeff good afternoon.

JEFF COHEN: Great to be with you.

BROWN: Jeff you’ve got a piece out right now on commondreams.org. It’s titled, TV Networks Should Open the Presidential Debates, and you go into the recent history a Commission on Presidential Debates or CPD. Take us back to 1988 and explain how the debate rules have changed.

COHEN: Yea well before 1988 it was the League of Women Voters, which was a truly nonpartisan group that sponsored the debates. And the Commission on Presidential Debates was a construct created by the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties. And at the news conference in 1987 as they were announcing their formation, they both commented this was the Republican chair Frank Fahrenkopf he’s still the co-chair on the Commission on Presidential Debates and the then Democratic chair Paul Kirk, they both said yea basically this thing was set up and they’re not going to look kindly on ever including third party candidates.

It was set up, the Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s not an official body. It’s no more federal than Federal Express. It’s a self-appointed group that took power away from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. They have now done 7 presidential elections and the main purpose for the commission is to make sure that third party candidates, as popular as they are this year, will not be included in the debate.

I mean there was only one time that they allowed a non-Democrat or non-Republican on the stage and that was Ross Perot in 1992, a Texas billionaire, because each party thought that his presence would somehow benefit them. But otherwise they’ve set this thing up so they rig, they can exclude any competition. It’s like Coke and Pepsi saying there will be no other soft drink sold in this country. And they’ve rigged it that way and the TV networks have just said okay. You know, the two parties, you’re giving us this debate? We’ll televise this debate. It’s utterly ridiculous. It’s un-journalistic.

BROWN: And it’s interesting that you brought up Ross Perot in 1992. The independent Texas billionaire who was allowed to debate that year, Bill Clinton and–

COHEN: George Bush the first.

BROWN: That’s right. George H.W. Bush. What qualified Ross Perot via the commission? Why did they give him permission? This one guy. Was it because he was a billionaire?

COHEN: Yea partly because he was a billionaire but also the commission is a fig leaf. It’s just a fig leaf to disguise that the two major parties determine who the debates will be. They negotiate and they negotiate. They sign their written agreement, they determine who will ask the questions, what the lighting will be, how tall the podiums will be. It’s all done by the two major parties. They deliver their memo to the Commission on Presidential Debates and then the TV networks accept it.

So back in 92 as you were asking, they thought this guy, his presence could help us. And even though he was only at 7-9% in the national polls he debated. And because he debated they had ratings that went through the roof.

Now what happened in 2000? Let’s jump from 92 to 2000. Just like this time, just like 2016, there was a right wing candidate, Pat Buchanan, a well-known commentator. And a left wing candidate Ralph Nader, the famed consumer advocate. And they were very popular. Polls showed that most people wanted to see them in the debate. But what did the Commission on Presidential Debates do?

They set an arbitrary barrier that if you’re not already at 15% in the polls you can’t get into the 2000 debate. That 15% barrier is still the rule today. How do we know it was arbitrary and aimed at excluding third party candidates?

Because right before they set that 15% barrier Jessie Ventura, a radio talk show host and a mayor, was allowed into the debates for governor for Minnesota by the Minnesota chapter of the League of Women Voters. Minnesota Public Radio. He was only at 10% in the polls. But because he was allowed into a series of debates he ended up becoming the governor winning 37% of the election.

So when you hear this 15% barrier and the TV networks are utterly clueless like that figure was handed down by god. It was actually constructed by the 2 major parties because they didn’t want to allow a Jessie Ventura to ever happen. It wasn’t because they wanted to exclude candidates who have no chance or candidates who are not viable. Jesse Ventura is who they are worried about. Is someone who would be way under the 15% but if allowed into the debates would become very very viable.

BROWN: Jeff in your article you correctly bring up more Americans than ever are not affiliated with the major political party. And this is according to Gallop Polling. More voters are identifying as registered independents as opposed to registered Republicans or Democrats. Those numbers at historic lows. While voters who ID as independent are at all-time highs. At 42% in the year 2015. Now Americans seem to be longing for more than just a bipartisan presentation. What are your thoughts about that?

COHEN: There’s no doubt about that. I mean you cited one of the most important indicators of why in 2016 we should have a four-way debate. Which is that most people don’t identify with the Democrats or Republicans. Democrats are at an all-time low in 2015. Republicans are at a near all-time low in 2015. And besides that, the major party candidates that have been put up in the year 2016 have record levels of unfavorability.

Hillary Clinton over 50% unfavorable. Donald Trump is over 60% unfavorable. So that’s why if people want to see a four way debate they would include Clinton, Trump, a very strong right Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, and a left candidate, the Green Party Candidate Dr. Jill Stein the healthcare activist from Massachusetts. Clearly if ever there was going to be a four-way debate, it’s this year. And it’s a good time for the TV networks to say you know Commission on Presidential Debates, we don’t need your advice on who to exclude.

The public knows that they want alternatives to listen to and we’re going to have a four-way debate. And by the way if people in your viewership want to sign a petition that demands the TV networks put forward a 4-way debate that would include Clinton, Trump, Libertarian Johnson, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, at the top of Rootsaction.org there’s a petition that in the first day got more than 10,000 signatures. We’re going to deliver that petition to the 10 TV networks that will be airing the debates and telling them be journalistic, be independent. Don’t let the two major parties narrow the debate and sensor other candidates.

BROWN: So Jeff, the Commission on Presidential Debates says a third party candidate can take part in one or more of the debates if they average 15% in the 5 designated polls. The ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox News poll. A recent poll from Reuters this is dated August 11th. It shows that Dr. Jill Stein, she’s polling at 2.5% while governor Gary Johnson has a little bit over 7%. This is not an average of the 5 polls but if the numbers are similar to this then these two candidates would be excluded.

COHEN: Only if the commission is allowed to control and sensor the debates as they have been allowed in the past. But if the TV networks say we don’t need your advice, here’s the standard that the TV networks should use and if people go to rootsaction.org and sign the petition it says here’s the standard. It’s a standard recommended by the Apple Seed Citizens Taskforce on Fair Debates connected to American University’s Law School.

They came up with this during the controversy in the year 2000. Including the debates, candidates who have a mathematical chance of winning, clearly Libertarian Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein will be on nearly all of the state ballots. So they’ll have a mathematical chance of winning and they have to have either 5% in popularity polls or and it’s or 50% of the public want to see them in the debates.

Back in the year 2000, strong majority said we want to see Pat Buchanan on the right wing and the progressive Ralph Nader in the debates. And the Commission on Presidential Debates was bent on excluding them. So here we are 16 years later. As you said Kim, the major parties at their low point in popularity the major party candidates are in their high point in unfavorability if every they should apply a standard that says you will allow third party candidates on the stage if they are on enough ballots to win and most of the American public wants them in the debates.

If that’s a question that gets asked by the pollsters, there’s no doubt in my mind or anyone’s mind and I’m sure that the TV networks mind, there’s no doubt that a majority is going to want Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in the debate along with Clinton and Trump. And I should point out that CNN in a few hours is going to be having a town meeting featuring Jill Stein and her Vice Presidential running mate Ajamu Baraka. So the TV networks know from their own polling that Gary Johnson’s been around 9 or 10%. Jill Stein’s been around 4 or 5% in most polls.

But if they ask that key question, do you want to see these individuals included in this debate, it will be a strong majority of the US public saying yes include them. And a four-way debate would be great for democracy. Why? Because if it’s just Hillary Clinton and Trump – you know Trump is saying our military’s decimated. Hillary is saying we have to keep our military strong. Johnson and Stein are two strong articulate voices that say we should say we should cut the military budget. And on issues like drug war, mass incarceration, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are very different than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There’s a number of issues where there will not be a real debate if it’s just Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

BROWN: And that’s absolutely correct Jeff because many people feel that should Hillary Clinton win the election, she’s not going with any sort of mandate with any sort of legislative mandate at minimum because right now she’s in a battle just to defeat the tyrant. Just to beat Trump. And that doesn’t really give her a whole lot of responsibilities should she win the White House. She’s just the one who defeated the tyrant.

COHEN: Right, I agree with you. I certainly hope that this potential dictator, this quasi-fascist is defeated. But simple Democratic and journalistic principles, small d Democratic would mean that in the country where every 4 years, the biggest political events, the most watched political events and sometimes 60-70 million people watch these debates. Then it should be a full spectrum debate with varying points of view on the big issues. It shouldn’t be narrowed down to these two unpopular candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s just unfair. It’s why we’re getting so many signatures on our petition at Rootsaction.org.

BROWN: Well Jeff, I will be certain to go and sign your petition as soon as we disconnect from our interview. But I think that’s a fantastic mandate that you’re setting forth because the American people do deserve to hear the full spectrum of what is out there for their presidential choices and RootsAction.org is where you can find that petition. We’ve been speaking with Jeff Cohen. He’s a media critic and a lecturer. Also the founding director for the Parks Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. He’s also an associate professor of journalism there. Jeff Thank you so much for your time.

COHEN: Thank you.

BROWN: Thanks for watching the Real News Network.

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