By the end of the evening, McCurry is agreeing with Andrew about the value of expanding the debate experience to include interactivity and the submission of questions, as well as ongoing discussion. "That's exactly what we want to do," he declares, at about 70 minutes in.
It's worth noting that back in July, McCurry and Fahrenkopf issued a statement describing the debates format for 2012 and promising that they were "undertaking an innovative Internet-based voter-education program that will encourage citizens to become familiar with the issues to be discussed in the debates, and to share their input with the debate moderators in advance of the debates" (emphasis added). The CPD cochairmen added, "The program, which will be announced later this month [sic], will be led by a coalition of Internet leaders."
Have you noticed the CPD debate moderators asking for your input anywhere? I haven't, with one exception. Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who is moderating the vice presidential debate, has asked her followers on Twitter what they would ask the candidates, and to tweet her using the hashtag #VPdebate.
Of course, that hasn't stopped all kinds of advocacy groups from trying to mobilize public attention around questions that they hope will be asked during the debates. If nothing else, there's an opportunity for list-building here! A big chunk of the public, including the people formerly known as the audience, does want to see serious issues addressed. The AARP is asking its members to "Tell Jim Lehrer to include Medicare and Social Security in the debates." Common Cause wants Lehrer to ask them about Citizens United. MomsRising, the Moms Clean Air Force, The Climate Reality Project, and the Environmental Defense Fund, to name a few, all want Lehrer to ask about the climate crisis. A coalition of gun-control groups want him to ask about gun violence.
I could go on. A Google search for "tell Jim Lehrer" produces more than 4,000 results.
Like I said, a great opportunity for list-building.
It's a bit too easy to criticize the Commission on Presidential Debates cochairmen for missing the Internet boat. The actual culprits are the two presidential campaigns. They stage-manage the entire show with a secret contract negotiated in advance by their top lawyers that lays out in incredible detail what will and won't happen at the debates.
At Personal Democracy Media, we've signed on to a call from Open Debates, asking that that contract be made public in the interests of transparency. George Farah, Open Debates's founder, obtained a copy of the 2004 contract and discovered that both sides had agreed that they would not ask each other direct questions, for example. In the "town hall"-style debate, they agreed that "Audience members shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion, and the audience member's microphone shall be turned off after he or she completes asking the question."
Longtime techPresident readers know that PDM has been pushing for some time the idea that debates can and should be reinvented for the digital age, where the abundance of time and bandwith allows for a completely different approach to evaluating where the candidates stand and involving the public in the conversation. (See 10Questions.com, for starters.) Unfortunately, instead of really opening up the process to take advantage of these new opportunities, it looks like the CPD has opted for a safe and narrow path that mostly consists of window-dressing. The disconnect between what the public is ready for and what our elites are ready for will sadly, once again, be on view Wednesday night.
A version of this article was first published at techPresident.com.