Free Debates: Round Two

As reported on the LA Times blog, During the primaries, a bunch of us (both Democrats and Republicans) called on the parties to demand that the networks adopt “open” or “free debate” principles, to assure that the debates would be available to everyone to use or reuse as they choose.

We’re back. In the extended entry below is another letter, signed by another bipartisan mix, calling on McCain and Obama to commit to “open debate principles.” You can get a PDF of the letter here.

Open Debate Coalition

Dear Senator McCain and Senator Obama,

We are a coalition of people and organizations across the ideological spectrum asking you to make this year’s presidential debates more “of the people” than ever before by bringing them more fully into the Internet age.

Specifically, we ask you to embrace these two “open debate” principles for the 2008 debates:

  1. The presidential debates are for the benefit of the public. Therefore, the right to speak about the debates ought to be “owned” by the public, not controlled by the media.

    During the primaries, a large
    coalition asked
    that media companies release rights to presidential debate
    video to ensure that key moments can be legally blogged about, shared on YouTube, or otherwise shared without fear of legal repercussion.

    CNN, ABC, and NBC agreed to release video rights. But one media company threatened legal action against Senator McCain for using a debate clip to spread a message. Such control over political speech is inconsistent with our democracy.

    We therefore call upon both candidates to commit to a principle that whenever you debate publicly, the raw footage of that debate will be dedicated to the public domain. Those in charge of the video feed should be directed to make it free for anyone to use.

  2. “Town hall” Internet questions should be chosen by the people, not solely by the media.

    The two campaigns recently
    of the October 7 debate, “In the spirit of the Town Hall, all
    questions will come from the audience (or Internet), and not the moderator.” We
    agree with the spirit of this statement. In order to ensure that the Internet
    portion of this debate is true bottom-up democracy, the format needs to allow
    the public to help select the
    questions in addition to asking them.

    This cycle’s YouTube debates were a milestone for Internet participation in presidential debates. But they put too much discretion in the hands of gatekeepers. Many of the questions chosen by TV producers were considered gimmicky and not hard-hitting enough, and never would have bubbled up on their own.

    This “bubble up” idea is the essence of the Internet as we know it. The best ideas rise to the top, and the wisdom of crowds prevails. We’d propose debate organizers utilize existing bubble-up voting technology and choose Internet questions from the top 25 that bubbled up. We ask you to instruct the October 7 debate planners to use bubble-up technology in this fashion.

    This is a historic election. The signers of this letter don’t agree on every issue. But we do agree that in order for Americans to make the best decision for president, we need open debates that are “of the people” in the ways described above. You have the power to make that happen, and we ask you to do so.

    Thank you for your willingness to take these ideas to heart. If you have any questions, please contact: [email protected]


    Lawrence Lessig; Professor, Stanford Law School, Founder, Center for Internet and Society

    Glenn Reynolds; Professor, University of Tennessee Law, and founder of blog

    Craig Newmark; Founder, Craigslist

    Jimmy Wales; Founder, Wikipedia

    David Kralik; Director of Internet Strategy, Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions

    Eli Pariser; Executive Director, Political Action

    Roger Simon, CEO, Pajamas Media

    Adam Green; Director of Strategic Campaigns, Political Action

    Mindy Finn; Republican strategist, former Mitt Romney Online Director

    Patrick Ruffini; Republican consultant, Former Republican National Committee eCampaign Director

    Arianna Huffington; Founder, Huffington Post

    Markos Moulitsas; Founder,

    Jon Henke; New media consultant, including for Fred Thompson, George Allen, and Senate Republican Caucus

    Mike Krempasky; Co-Founder of

    Matt Stoller; Founder/Editor,

    James Rucker; Executive Director,

    Robert Greenwald; President, BraveNewFilms

    Kim Gandy; President, National Organization for Women

    Carl Pope; Executive Director, Sierra Club

    Micah Sifry; Co-Founder, Personal Democracy Forum and

    Shari Steele; Executive Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation

    Josh Silver; Executive Director, Free Press

    Carl Malamud; Founder, Public.Resource.Org

    Roger Hickey; Co-Director, Campaign for America’s Future

    Roger Simon, CEO, Pajamas Media

    K. Daniel Glover, Executive Producer,, Media Research Center

    Billy Hallowell, Director of Content, VoterWatch

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38 Responses to Free Debates: Round Two

  1. If you extend the principles to cover the selection of questions, there are other issues like that that come up in primary debates (something to keep in mind for next time): the choices of which candidates get to participate and how much time they are allocated on stage were made, as far as I know, behind closed doors. In an MSNBC primary debate, the speaking times were clearly allocated based on the latest poll numbers. That’s an election-altering (and potentially self-serving) decision that should have been made openly. Only The Des Moines Register’s debate gave candidates an equal amount of time. But, maybe there’s no end to the number of issues like this.

  2. The “bubble-up” technique has been proven to be a failure. All it does is allow partisan hacks who get a lot of traffic to send their readers to vote up questions they want answered. Here’s proof:

    If you really want something that would work, here’s how to select questions so the real ones rise to the top:

    And, here’s how to conduct real debates:

  3. The “bubble-up” technique has been proven to be a failure. All it does is allow partisan hacks who get a lot of traffic to send their readers to vote up questions they want answered. For instance, MoveOn gamed the 10Questions format to vote up a very weak question for BHO that he’d already answered months before. Details at my name’s link.

    If you really want something that would work, here’s how to select questions so the real ones rise to the top:

    And, here’s how to conduct real debates:

    Why isn’t the “open debate” coalition proposing something that would work?

  4. “For instance, MoveOn gamed the 10Questions format to vote up a very weak question for BHO that he’d already answered months before.”

    Fixing this ain’t that complicated. Prof. Lessig has a good handle on the players, as per his list above. Let the center-right bloggers on the list choose questions for the Democratic candidate, and have the center-left bloggers do the same for the Republicans. It’s painfully obvious why you would NOT want MoveOn feeding Obama questions. I’d have to wonder why anyone in their right mind would even consider that an option.

    Having these ‘unbiased TV professionals’ (yeah, right) moderate these debates over the years has been an unmitigated disaster, and more importantly keeps the general public out of the debate loop. Taking the choices of questions out of the hands of ratings-and-image-minded paid pundits would be a far better method.

  5. Mister Snitch: there are topics – including the one I cover – that the “center-right bloggers” above don’t want to discuss or won’t discuss in a fair manner (for instance, I was kicked off RS clearly because I took Bush to task over that issue).

    Asking BHO a real question on the topic I cover would show he’s not qualified. However, McCain is also very weak on that issue, and those “center-right bloggers” wouldn’t select one of those questions out of fear of it being asked of McCain as well.

    The only way to do this that works is to make people stake their reputations on the toughness of a question, which the plan linked above is designed to do. Under that plan, all votes would be public, and if someone votes up weak questions and votes down tough ones that would be public and they’d show themselves to be hacks. They’d also have to publicly indicate their general ideology and that would be used to maintain a balanced number of voters. If they misstated their ideology (i.e., if someone from a leftwing group said they were conservative) they would reveal themselves to be a liar. My plan would only allow voting by “known quantities”, such as those who’ve had a blog or similar for six months or more. That would weed out sockpuppets and the like.

  6. “The best ideas rise to the top, and the wisdom of crowds prevails.”

    I can’t write at lenght what I want to write in reply, because of the power of A-listers to smear me or send a mob after me. Which recursively shows the above is total nonsense 🙁 🙁 🙁 .

  7. Let me also add I could put together (using Drupal) and manage a voting system such as that described in my last comment fairly quickly and for a very reasonable fee. People would upload their questions to a video sharing site and could embed them in posts that those eligible to vote would vote on. Each voter would have a profile page, and their self-selected ideology could be checked by visitors. Those visitors would be able to access different pages showing who voted for/against a specific question, the votes of a specific voter, which questions a specific voter hasn’t voted on, etc. I’d need someone else to come up with the graphic design and, more importantly I’d need others to help promote it and make sure that the results weren’t simply ignored by the campaigns. The email to this comment works if Lessig wants to make that happen.

  8. Eric Norman says:

    I don’t get it. The debaters own the copyright to what they say, right?

    If they assign the copyright to some broadcaster, then they ought to stop doing that.

  9. Harold Cutler says:

    Why not remove teleprompters or any other method of coaching the debator during the debate. We want to know what the debator knows and how he answers concerning possible problems when in office.

    It is a farce for an off screen “expert” to tell the debator what the answer should be.

    Shame on us to let the debator to be sheltered on their inability to answer any question. A simple “I don’t know” would show an honest debator.

  10. Harold Cutler says:

    The debaters should not be alllowed to use a teleprompter or any other method of communications by “handlers” to transmit information to the debator. The debators should be on their own to answer or defend each question or statement.

    We want to know what the debater knows and how articulate he is infielding questions. All questions should be carefully thought out when presented be honestly and ethically stated.

    We want to know what the debaters qualifications are, not a paid handler.

  11. Zach Tumin says:

    Journalists have no monopoly on smart questions, nor stupid ones. Neither does the “crowd”. There is a role for citizen-sourced questions in the debate, but we needn’t wrap it in the fog of a populist notion ported from software development of all places now to *all* spheres of life that the best ideas rise to the top. Not everything in science, politics or social affairs is self-revealing or self-correcting, whether in time, or at all. The fact is that the Founding Fathers deeply mistrusted the “crowd” and put the Senate on the path to legislation, as well as the court in its aftermath. That model has balanced “crowds” and elite views well for hundreds of years. We ought to be careful what we ask for, oh legal scholars touting the wise crowd, who do appear before the Supreme Court on a regular basis to appeal the wisdom of the crowd to the bench of experts.

  12. As a Brit, I find TV debates really interesting. You may not know, but we dont have debates by British politicians – I am really not sure why! However, seeing McCain and Obama in what appears to be a staged environment doesnt quite do it for me. It all looks far too rehearsed.

    From those I have spoken to her in the UK, all we care about your election is the end result , yet our News channels seem to think we need EVERY fact relayed. Count yourself lucky that YOUR news doesn’t cover OUR elections in the same way!

  13. lomlate says:

    This won’t work for one simple reason… If you give a politician a surprise question they are more likely to give an answer which is away from their stump speech. If we allow voting for questions the debaters will have days to prepare the most polished bullshit response to the question. The debates are great because they can catch the politicians off gaurd, and free debates would be the antithesis of this!

  14. x says:

    Some Precautions I advise to make such debates more relevant
    The first and most important is that the “agency” (where you suggest and vote on questions,) should/must be independent. (so none of the parties can manipulate the system, or learn of the questions before debates)
    The second is that it requires personal info to register a user (to ensure both that each individual is an American citizen and that each individual only votes once.)
    Third The votes should be anonymous and comments should be identified.

    Another precaution that would be an advantage if at all possible is:
    People working on the election campaign should not be able to register. so the questions aren’t revealed before the debate itself.

  15. jacksen says:

    These actually are design decisions that make most Americans believe that design is a fairly easy endeavor.
    Along with this, the access to information and the myriad of choices available to everyone today allows people to quite literally design their lives. And, because of this new cultural phenomenon, people in this country are learning much more about design.

    Internet marketing

  16. Ann Wainright says:

    NO NO NO
    Gwen Ifill should not moderate the Vice Pres debate- she is biased
    She wrote a book about Obama

  17. It doesn’t matter if they know the questions in advance, if the questions are good enough. Consider these:

    The only way BHO could profit from knowing one of those in advance is if he changed his position or issued a correction, i.e., did something to my benefit.

    As for the “agency”, no one is unbiased. That’s why my system (described at has pre-defined rules and transparency in an attempt to rule out bias. And, by making it so that only “known parties” (e.g., those who’ve been blogging for six months or more), that makes the use of sockpuppets very difficult except for those who are deep undercover. There would probably be so few people like that that they wouldn’t make a difference.

    P.S. Since the ODC doesn’t exactly seem to have set the world on fire, perhaps Lessig or someone else from the ODC might consider contacting me regarding the offer above.

  18. x says:

    re: proof it doesn’t work
    proof… This isn’t proof this is semi-constructed argumentation, aka nitpicking
    For some nitpicking of my own

    1. You say it doesn’t matter if they know the questions in advance, if the questions are good enough.
    True there is a lot of questions that has a straight answer or where it is impossible to wiggle away from the implications.
    But unexpected questions on a topic can tell if the candidate knows what the topic is all about.
    Just look at how Bush answers unexpected questions without help of his advisors, and you know what i mean.

    2. About your three obama questions: isn’t all 3 questions more or less on the same topic? ;

    3. Sure no one is unbiased. the same apply for reputated bloggers and pundits by the way…
    Meaning that the bloggers will take over the same role as the “criticized” journalists.
    Whats the point in that?
    A point should be that more then just a selected “elite” is in control of the questions.
    Thats why i say people should register on it with personal info
    (example: name, address and social security number)
    So that it all that has something to say can not only a select few.

    I have to admit there would be some users that wouldn’t have a clue about politics, so you would need to have a way to sift out the garbage by a separate voting button. (garbage)
    it it gets a set amount of votes it will be reviewed by more than one agency to figure out if it’s
    unfit garbage or not.

  19. Steve says:

    Roger Simon, CEO, Pajamas Media
    Roger Simon, CEO, Pajamas Media

    Was this actually sent to the candidates with this repetition?

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