Networks Balk at Bush-Kerry Debate Rules

Networks balk at Bush-Kerry debate agreement (CNN)

Although the Bush and Kerry camps have meticulously crafted an agreement on the rules for this year’s presidential debates, the television networks broadcasting them refuse to go along with the plans. Specifically, the networks object to provisions in the agreement that place limits on their cameras, including prohibitions on shots of one candidate while the other is answering questions. “Because of journalistic standards, we’re not going to follow outside restrictions,” said Paul Schur, a spokesman for Fox News, which is manning the pool camera for the first debate Thursday in Miami, Florida. “This is a news pool, and we are not subject to agreements between candidates,” NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin said. “We will use pictures as we see fit.” CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said the network “reserves the right to make our own decisions about coverage during the debate, just as we always have.” ABC News and CBS News are also objecting to the limits, with a CBS spokeswoman insisting that “we will utilize any shots the pool makes available.”

Also, at least two of the television journalists chosen to moderate the debates — ABC’s Charles Gibson and CBS’s Bob Schieffer — have not signed the agreement on ground rules hammered out between the two campaigns, according to their networks. The other two moderators are Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer, both of PBS, which has not yet commented. Under terms of the agreement reached last week between the Bush and Kerry campaigns after lengthy negotiations, moderators who refuse to sign the document can be replaced.

The 32-page agreement sets out the rules for the debates with great specificity, down to details such as the temperature of the hall, what kind of paper can be used to take notes and who can stand in the wings. Monday, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the independent group that plays host to the debates, said it would agree to enforce the rules reached in the agreement between the Bush and Kerry campaigns and that there “will be no departure from the terms” unless there is “prior consultation with, and approval by, the appropriate campaign representatives.” However, the commission did not formally sign the agreement, and its co-chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf, told The New York Times that the restrictions on what the networks can show are unenforceable. “We don’t control the feed, so we don’t know what the networks are going to show,” said Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “That’s not within our purview.”

The New York Times also reported that the commission may balk at a provision in the agreement setting out the make-up of the audience for the town hall debate between Bush and Kerry on October 8 in St. Louis, Missouri. The campaigns agreed that the audience would be divided between people leaning toward Bush and those leaning toward Kerry. The debate commission wants the hall full of undecided voters in neither camp. Under terms of their agreement, either the Bush or Kerry campaigns could opt out of the debates, or seek another sponsor, if the commission does not sign on to their terms. There is no indication either camp is contemplating such a move.

I heard about this on the drive in to work this morning. The “journalistic standards” argument is nonsense. The networks aren’t acting as “journalists” here; they are merely transmitting a staged event. It would seem easy enough for the campaigns to hire their own camera crews and simply deny networks who refuse to cooperate the right to bring their own cameras in. One would think they would be required under the terms of their licensing to air the pool feed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tom says:

    Well, if there’s no journalism involved, then the networks are free to broadcast it as entertainment, or not broadcast it at all. It’s their airtime, and if they choose to use it in another way, it’s their decision – why should they have to kowtow to not show Edwards making funny faces at Cheney’s responses or vice versa, same with the Presidential candidates? Seems kind of unwieldy.

    And they need to stop calling this a “debate” anyway. They should just get up and give speeches.

  2. James Joyner says:

    They have certain requirements to operate in the public interest as part of their licensing requirement and free use of the public’s airwaves. One would think airing conventions, “debates,” and the like would fit in.

  3. Tom says:

    I don’t disagree that they should really *have* to offer the debates, but when they move away from serving the public interest and start becoming uber-restrictive platform sessions it’s kind of defeating the purpose of seeing what one candidate has over another. Broadcasters are using public airwaves and should gladly offer such things….but sometimes it’s a little too far. Are they going to have only green M&Ms in their dressing rooms, too?