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Televised presidential debates were taken over in 1988 by a private, non-profit corporation consisting of the two parties. The Commission on Presidential Debates picks the locations, sets the rules, selects the moderators, and has sponsors it’s not required to disclose

July 30, 2016

The Commission picks the locations, sets the rules, selects the moderators, and determines the composition of the audience. As a non-profit corporation, it’s not required to disclose its sponsors.

10/3/1988 League Refuses to “Help Perpetrate a Fraud, League of Women Voters, News Release, lwv.org, For Immediate Release, Washington, DC

“LEAGUE REFUSES TO “HELP PERPETRATE A FRAUD” “WITHDRAWS SUPPORT FROM FINAL PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE”

The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter,” League President Nancy M. Neuman said today.

“It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions,” Neuman said. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

Neuman said that the campaigns presented the League with their debate agreement on September 28, two weeks before the scheduled debate. The campaigns’ agreement was negotiated “behind closed doors” and was presented to the League as “a done deal,” she said, its 16 pages of conditions not subject to negotiation.

Most objectionable to the League, Neuman said, were conditions in the agreement that gave the campaigns unprecedented control over the proceedings. Neuman called “outrageous” the campaigns’ demands that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues.

“The campaigns’ agreement is a closed-door masterpiece,” Neuman said. “Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands.”

Neuman said she and the League regretted that the American people have had no real opportunities to judge the presidential nominees outside of campaign-controlled environments.

“On the threshold of a new millenium, this country remains the brightest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate,” Neuman said. “Americans deserve to see and hear the men who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century.”

Neuman issued a final challenge to both Vice President Bush and Governor Dukakis to “rise above your handlers and agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate.”

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The Commission on Presidential Debates “is a 501(c)(3) corporation, sponsored all the presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.” “The Commission sponsors and produces the debates, picks the locations, sets the rules, selects the moderators, and determines which candidates participate.” As a non-profit corporation, the Commission isn’t required to disclose its sponsors: On the donor list provided to the Center for Public Integrity, the Commission blanked out the names of all six. Nonprofit organizations are not legally required to make this information public.”…

1976, 1980, and 1984 debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters

2008 article

9/18/2008, Two-party debates, Center for Pubic Integrity, Josh Israel A Corporate-Funded, Party-Created Commission Decides Who Debates — and Who Stays Home”

“Sixty-six million viewers watched the nation’s premiere televised presidential debate, a September 26, 1960, primetime event featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. It was paid for by three major television networks, but broadcast regulations prevented them from continuing their sponsorship in the next several elections. In 1976, the independent League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to citizen education, took over. 

The League hosted three debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and one between their running mates, and sponsored debates in the 1980 and 1984 elections as well. The debates became part of the quadrennial election process, but the League’s management style ruffled some feathers among party insiders who wanted more control of the process. Republican David Norcross, who helped form the Commission, called the League’s debate organizers “too dictatorial” and criticized them for “ignoring or avoiding the politics of the whole situation.”…

Then, as Connie Rice, a prominent Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer and commentator on National Public Radio, characterizes it, “The debates were hijacked.” In 1988, the two major political parties seized controlagainst the wishes of the League of Women Voters. The Democratic and Republican national committees argued in a joint press release that their co-sponsorship would “better fulfill our party responsibilities to inform and educate the electorate, strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process and, most important of all . . . institutionalize the debates, making them an integral and permanent part of the presidential debate process.” Rather than trying to change the way the League ran the debates, the two national party chairmen simply “commissioned” their own “independent” debate entity — and put themselves in charge.

With that, the Commission on Presidential Debates came into existence, led by then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. and then-Republican National Committee Chairman Frank H. Fahrenkopf Jr. They hired one full-time employee, a Republican former Senate staffer named Janet Brown. The three have led the Commission since its inception, with a board of directors made up primarily of committed partisans from the two major parties. The Commission sponsors and produces the debates, picks the locations, sets the rules, selects the moderators, and determines which candidates participate.

Corporate sponsorship

Brown’s annual salary ($175,000 as of 2004 and 2005, paid even in non-election years) the organization’s operating expenses and debate production costs are paid by a small number of major donors. In 2004, the Commission took in over $4.1 million, more than 93 percent of which came from just six contributors. On the donor list provided to the Center for Public Integrity, the Commission blanked out the names of all six. Nonprofit organizations are not legally required to make this information public.

The organization’s website identifies 11 “national sponsorsof the 2004 debates, a majority of which are corporations. They include three airlines, a cable television network, a company that helps businesses and governments outsource information technology, and the self-crowned king of the beer-making business, Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., which also sponsored several other debates in previous years. No stranger to a good party, Anheuser-Busch supplemented its quadrennial contributions to the Commission in the hours before the October 8, 2004, debate, in its hometown of St. Louis, by treating members of the media and other VIPs to a tent party featuring sirloin steak, stuffed portobello mushrooms, and, of course, plenty of beer.

The sponsorships have drawn significant criticism, most ardently from Open Debates, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that describes itself as working to “ensure that the presidential debates serve the American people first.” Instead of serving the people, the group argues, the Commission serves its corporate interests. Take the 1992 debates, it points out, during which the Commission allowed its $250,000 sponsor, Philip Morris, to hang a promotional banner in an area visible in post-debate interviews. And for its $550,000 contribution in 2000, Anheuser-Busch was permitted at the event to distribute pamphlets against taxes on beer. (According to the beer industry’s lobbying group, the federal excise tax on beer has remained unchanged since 1991.)

Brown concedes that the Commission’s reliance on corporate sponsorship “seems to be . . . extraordinarily controversial,” but she told the Center that the Commission is similar to most nonprofits in its fundraising efforts — it seeks funding from foundations, corporations, individuals, and the debate sites themselves. She insists that no funder has ever asked for a topic or question to be introduced in the debates….

Private organizations like the Commission have a legal right to take money from whomever they want and to exclude people from their events. But the concern among the Commission’s critics is whether, as Open Debates argues, the events once dedicated to public education have become “a series of glorified bipartisan news conferences” for the parties.”…

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