The American presidential debates are one of the last great institutions of the era of broadcast politics, and arguably the one that has changed the least since the rise of the Internet, despite public demands for greater participation and transparency. With the first head-to-head appearance of President Obama and Mitt Romney coming Wednesday night in Denver, here's what you need to know about the debates and the Web.
First, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the private organization that was set up by the Democratic and Republican parties in 1987 to take control of the debates from the League of Women Voters and keep them safely under bipartisan sponsorship, is deeply committed to making sure that the people who used to be known as "the audience" remain only that. There will be no citizen participation of any meaningful kind in these encounters, but the CPD has found a way to use words like "participate" and "conversation" in a sentence.
To wit, last Tuesday, the commission announced a "new digital coalition" with AOL, Google, and Yahoo! called "The Voice Of ... " that will "provide the American public with access to information about the issues at large, feature the live debates, allow access to archival debate footage, and give people throughout the country the opportunity to share their voice."
From the announcement (emphases added): "The 2012 debates can be the foundation for a season of conversation, and the Internet initiative will provide unprecedented access for citizens to participate in that conversation," said CPD Cochairmen Michael D. McCurry and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. in a press statement. "This initiative recognizes that technology offers the means to provide, receive, and share information about the topics that will be discussed during the debates — by having AOL, Google, and Yahoo! as our partners, it has the potential to reach and engage more people than have ever participated in these voter-education forums."
"The Voice Of ... " landing pages on AOL, Google, and Yahoo! were alternately throwing up 404 error messages and placeholder pages as recently as Monday morning, so apparently "unprecedented access for citizens" means something other than what you or I might think it means.
Google is going to offer some kind of interactive audience dial gadget for YouTube users, which could allow for real-time audience feedback — except it's already clear none of that feedback is going to get anywhere near the actual debate itself.
As best as I can tell, what the CPD is doing is little more than what they did four years ago — except back then they partnered with Myspace on a site called MyDebates.org that featured video streaming, on-demand playback, and archival material. Oh, and this time the partner sites will include a dynamic counter showing how many people have "shared their voice."
Those of us who have been paying attention have known for some time that the CPD was disinclined to do anything that might open up their bipartisan TV show to anything like civic participation. Two years ago, my colleague Andrew Rasiej was on a Harvard Kennedy School panel with McCurry discussing the presidential debates, where he challenged the commission to embrace social media. You can watch the conversation here.
Andrew argues, valiantly, for seizing the opportunity that the Internet provides to "break down the scripting of the process" (at about 28:12). A few minutes later McCurry replies that the debates need to stay "dignified" and defends how the events are structured, which both campaigns quietly insist upon. Later, at about 59 minutes in, they clash on whether it would be useful to try to engage the large share of the public that uses social-networking platforms, with McCurry insisting that older voters, who make up the biggest cohort of the electorate, wouldn't be reached. Seconds later, a freshman steps up to ask a question but first pointedly rebuts McCurry, noting, "My grandmother has Facebook."