Jul 1 2000

What is the Commission on Presidential Debates?

excerpted from EXTRA! Update, July 2000

For the most part, the CPD has been described nonchalantly in mainstream media as “nonprofit,” “independent” and “nonpartisan” (e.g., Boston Globe, 6/27/00; Los Angeles Times, 6/25/00; Chicago Tribune, 6/22/00). In fact, the Commission is controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, which jointly created the organization in 1987 with the aim of seizing control of the debates from the League of Women Voters.

Although the debate commission now gets away with portraying its role as a scrupulously fair and independent body, that’s not how it was described when first established 13 years ago. A 1987 New York Times article (2/19/87) reporting the CPD’s launch made it clear whom the group represented: “Democrats and Republicans Form Panel to Hold Presidential Debates.”

According to the Times article, CPD co-chairs Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf—the Democratic and Republican national party chairs—took a stand on third-party participation during the press conference that announced the group’s formation.

“In response to questions,” the Times reported, “Mr. Fahrenkopf indicated that the new Commission on Presidential Debates…was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates…. Mr. Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third-party candidates from the debates.” Both officials said that candidate selection was an issue for the Commission alone to decide. Kirk and Fahrenkopf still serve as the Commission’s co-chairs. (The Washington Post reviewed some of this history in an exceptional July 2 piece.)

Despite the pretensions of the Commision, it will ultimately be up to the TV networks to decide which debates to broadcast. This fall, media activism will be crucial in ensuring that we have a real debate about the presidential debates.