“People Learning to Choose Their Destiny”: Q&A with Janet Brown


[MUSIC PLAYING] Hi, everyone. I’d like to welcome
you to our event today. The ISP at Yale Law and the
Gruber Program for Social Justice would like
to welcome you to a conversation with Belabes
Benkredda and Janet Brown. So Janet Brown is the
Executive Director of the Commission on
Presidential Debates in Washington, DC, which is
a nonprofit organization. It is not a wing
of the government, which is an important thing
that I wanted to note. She has held this
position since 1987. Before joining
the CPD, Ms. Brown served in appointed
positions at the White House and the Office of
Management and Budget. She also served on the staffs of
the Honorable John C. Danforth in the US Senate and the
Ambassador Elliot Richardson at this Department of State. So the Commission on
Presidential Debates was established 1987
to ensure the benefit of the American electorate,
that the general election debates between
leading candidates are a permanent part of
the electoral process. And to meet its goal
of educating voters, CPD has engaged in
various activities beyond producing and sponsoring
presidential debates. They also provide
technical assistance to emerging
democracies and others interested in establishing
debate traditions in other countries. Belabes Benkredda is the founder
of The Munathara Initiative, which the Arab world’s
largest organization. He was named a 2016
Yale World Fellow and received the 2013
NDI Democracy Award. He’s currently a Gruber Fellow
in Global Justice at Yale Law School and a Visiting
Fellow at ISP. And he recently hosted
seven debates in Tunisia, including the
presidential debates. So I’d like to welcome you to
this conversation with Janet and Belabes. [APPLAUSE] I’ve been told I’m
going to start. So I’m starting. Can everyone see and hear? Leah, would you like me to
move this, or is it movable? Let’s see if we can– The screen? Maybe we can put it– is that better? Good. Is that how you– Thank you. Perfect. Good afternoon, and thank you
all for this opportunity, which I realized you had no vote in. But I’m honored
to be here, and I hope we can have this largely
a conversation back and forth. I was asked to give
you just a little bit of an overview on what the
Commission is and is not. As Leah mentioned, we are a
not-for-profit corporation based in Washington, DC. You are looking
at half the staff. So the other half is in charge
of the office right now. We were started in 1987
after two formal studies, one at the Institute
of Politics at Harvard and one at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown,
that took a look at a variety of different
general election issues and came to the conclusion that,
given how important debates were in the general
election, that there should be an organization that
was in charge of sponsoring the debates that did nothing
else in the general election. We do not poll. We do not represent the
positions of the candidates. We don’t get involved
in any other aspect of the general election. The Federal Election
Commission has two requirements of general debates by general
election debate sponsors. One is that they be either media
organizations or non-profits, which is what we are. In either event, they must
have objective, prepublished criteria that determine who
will be included in the debates and how those invitations
will be issued. So we are a not-for-profit. We are a 501(c)(3)
under IRS regulations. We raise all of our
money privately. We do not get any money
from the federal government or from political
parties or tax. We have been sponsoring the
general election debates in this country since 1987. So this will be our ninth
cycle that we are well underway with the plans for. We announced the sites
and dates two weeks ago. And the debates generally are
held from the end of September through the middle
of October, which is what will be the case in 2020. We have held all but
three of our debates on college and
university campuses. And the reason is simple. These debates are
about education. So if you can have
them on campuses and get hundreds and hundreds
of students and members of the community involved
in their production, we see that as a
really good thing. So basically, we have
a very narrow charter. We are the sponsors
and producers of the general election debates. That means we are the
sponsors under the FEC rules, and it means we are the
production company that comes together every four years
to actually put the debates on. When you turn them
on and you look at the debate set
and the debate hall, everything that is
going on in that space is our responsibility,
with the exception of the cameras and
the people operating the cameras and the truck,
the production truck, which is outside with a director in it. Those all belong to the
television network member of the White House
pool which is charged with covering the debate and
actually broadcasting it. I don’t know how
many of you have had any kind of personal
experience with the White House pool. But it is a mechanism
that’s been in place for a very long time that
pertains to big events, like the debates
or the conventions or States of the Union,
where it’s completely impractical to
have representation from all the different
television networks in terms of cameras and sound
systems to cover an event in a very small space. So the cameras, actually,
and the broadcast itself are there representing a
member of the White House pool who draw for coverage
of the debates as they do for coverage
of the conventions. The debates are 90 minutes long. They are free of any kind of
break, commercial or otherwise. They are moderated
by journalists that are chosen
by the Commission for their familiarity with the
candidates and their positions. They’re experienced in
live, hard news television and for their
ability to remember that, for better or worse,
they are not on the ballot. They are there to
facilitate a conversation with the candidates. Since 1992, we have gotten
away from the traditional panel of moderator and
questioners that existed before we came into
the general debate sponsorship. That is what you see in
most of the primary debates. In our case, there
is a single moderator who is in charge of
the entire 90 minutes. We see that as a way to
facilitate focusing the time and attention on the
candidates and to making sure that the moderator, in
fact, can determine a better flow of the topics
and the questions. In the last two cycles,
we’ve tried something, again, that is designed to
get more information from the candidates, less
interference by anybody else. The first and final
presidential debates are divided into
six 15-minute pods that each start with a
question by the moderator. And the balance of the time
after each candidate responds is devoted to a back
and forth on that issue. The topics are actually chosen
and announced by the moderators about 10 days before those
debates so that they are known. They can be on foreign
or domestic issues. But what that does is to allow
for the focus of the time to be on the candidates
and their views. Town meeting, as you know, is
a completely different format. That is where undecided
or uncommitted voters are asked to come in and
ask the questions directly of the candidates. In both cases, the questions
are known only to the moderator or, in the case of the town
meeting, to the questioners. We don’t know the questions,
nor do the candidates. There is no sharing of those,
no committee working on those. That is entirely up
to the moderators. Moderators are not paid. They are chosen for
their experience. They are there representing
the American people. They are not there
as representatives of their network or
their news organization. As you may recall
from watching these, there is absolutely no
insignia on the set. There is no branding,
and there is there is no kind of marketing
of these, which, thankfully, are carried in real time by all
the members of the White House pool, along with anyone else who
chooses to take the feed, which includes a very large number
of international networks that show this in real time. To give you an example
of the kinds of audience that you get for
a general election debate, the first
debate in 2016, the domestic audience was
around 80 million people. By the time you add
online and international, we conservatively estimate it
was about 120 million people, which, as you know, is just
an enormously larger number than for any other kind
of political programming and, in fact, is larger than
World Cup or the Olympics or the Super Bowl. So these are very large events
that take place in real time. I think we all forget
how much of what we see on television has
been taped and edited. And of course, there
are frequent breaks so that people can
regroup or rethink what they what
they wanted to ask or what someone
may have answered. This is an entirely
different kind of forum. There will be
three presidential, one vice presidential
debates in 2020, which is what we have had almost
consistently since we started. And the work on these,
which surprises most people, starts about 2 and 1/2
years before the debates. So we are well
into that process. We started working at least
a year ago with the networks, before that, with
federal law enforcement. Cybersecurity is now
something that never rests. And what we want
to do is make sure that these not only
take place in a way that the American
public finds helpful and that the format continues
to evolve so that we take advantage of whatever new
ideas will, in fact, make them a better use of 90
minutes times four and that they involve the
community in such a way that goes past four
individual nights. It is obvious to
everybody in this country, we are out of the habit of civil
discourse and of listening. And we hope very
much next year we will be also launching
a project that tries to get people,
particularly young people, first-time voters, to come
together around the debates and understand that these should
be accessible, they should be understandable, they involve
issues that will affect all the other races that you might
be looking at when you go to vote, and that this should
be an opportunity to really understand the
issues, and equally importantly, to understand the
opinions of the other people that are in your community
that may come at something from a different
perspective than you do. So that is a
snapshot of the CPD. When we get going here, I
know we’re going to cover– and we wouldn’t know each other
without the international work that we do, which came
as a total surprise to the Commission when it
started up back in 1989. We have been approached by
groups in other countries, largely NGOs, for
assistance with putting on their own debates,
starting their own debates, or making them better
now since 1989, 1990. And it is nothing short
of inspirational work. We have a network now
of almost 40 countries that work together. The website is
debatesinternational.org. And that is a place
where, as a peer group, we all share ideas about
how we can get better, how we can help each other
through challenging obstacles, and how we make these fulfill
their promise as totally unusual opportunities
for citizens to hear from the people
that want to lead them. That is the reason for
the title of this talk, is that in the recent
Tunisian debates, which were absolutely
history-making, and this man and his colleagues
finally prevailed as pioneers, along with many other pioneers
in our debate network. And one of the media coverage of
those debates was so touching. And one of my
favorite quotes was somebody who was asked
in a restaurant or a bar where there was a viewing group
that had come together, “Well, how do you measure this? What does this mean?” Because there were
imperfections. There are always imperfections. We always try to get
better, each one of us. But the quote was,
“This is a picture of a people learning to
choose their own destiny.” That’s what this is all about. That’s pretty powerful. So that is a snapshot
of the Commission. And I think I’m going to get
a pop quiz here, and then look forward to hearing your
questions and observations. Thanks so much, Janet. Yeah, thank you. [RECORDED SINGING PLAYS] It’s really an honor to
finally have you here. I was just saying to
you, we tried in 2016. It didn’t work out, obviously,
for very good reasons, ’cause you were quite
busy around the fall. And I should also
add, we’re honored to be part of the
international network through my NGO, which recently
put on the presidential debates in Tunisia. And [INAUDIBLE] one of the– and Allison were
Yale Law students who actually came to Tunisia
and witnessed the debates. So thank you guys
so much for coming. Janet, I want to talk to
you about your background very briefly, then about
the history of the debates, then about the organization
and kind of what goes into the operation, their
impact on public culture, you know, popular
culture, and then finally, the international dimension. Let’s try and see
how far we get. But I do want to know, so the
CPD was established in 1987. How did you get to
work for the CPD? Were you always interested
in debate before that? And talk briefly about
how you got there. Total accident, just like
most things in Washington. I had been in the
government for 15 years after college and
graduate school. And we were talking earlier
about how improbable it is that the sitting Republican
National Committee Chair and Democratic
National Committee Chair had come together to
start this organization. That is a remarkable thing to
think about, especially now. And I was approached and
asked if I would just submit my resume to be
considered for staff director. And ironically, when I had
been in the government, I was covered by what’s
known as the Hatch Act, which means you cannot in
any way partake of partisan politics. So I had never come close to a
campaign or political debate. And I remember, as I said
to some of your colleagues, being asked this and
saying to my husband that it sounded kind of not
very appealing on first blush. And he pointed out
that I needed a job, and that was
definitely the truth. So I did put in my resume,
and I was very, very fortunate to get hired as
the first employee. It was nothing but luck, and it
was a very happy bit of luck. And Janet, let’s talk
briefly about the history of the debate. So famously,
Nixon-Kennedy in 1960 is when the first ever
televised debates happened. And I was really
surprised to read recently that it turns out–
so Kennedy is widely seen as having won the debate. But it turns out
that a lot of people who listened on
the radio thought that Nixon won the debate. So I wonder, what do you think
that tells us about televised debates as a format? And yeah, I wonder if you
could reflect a little bit on what that might mean. Walking over here, we were
talking about the fact that debates, at least
in their current form, are the ultimate visual event. And most people want to see
them in real time on TV. If you want to be a purist,
in fact, you will forego that, and you will just
read the transcript or perhaps listen
to it on radio. But it’s obvious
from the numbers that most people would like
to watch this in real time. That means that all of the other
impressions that you are going to take in watching
a debate are going to be a part of what you
process when you figure out who struck you in what
way after the debate and during the debate. And that includes everything
from the person’s appearance, their demeanor, the way
they treat their opponent, the moderator. It’s a very complicated
set of signals that you have to take in. One of the things I like to
say when I’m teaching classes is, to students of
political communication, turn the sound off on
a debate and watch it for at least 15
minutes if you want to tease out some of
the different elements to test what it is
that you’re taking in. And there’s a very
mixed bag of factors that anyone brings to a debate. That’s going to color
where they start, and it’s going to
affect how they feel about what they
took in during the debate and afterwards. But it’s also a reminder
of why we ask people– and there is no getting
around this with the media– but we say to
people, please don’t think of it in terms of who
won or who lost a debate. That’s actually not a very
good way to measure it. Question, did you learn
anything during the debate that you didn’t know before? Did it prompt you to think
about things in a way that you hadn’t thought
about that particular topic? That is a whole lot more
important to us than who won or who lost, which tends
to be more subjective. The numbers for debate
audiences are significant, as I mentioned. What’s equally interesting
is that, for years, very reliable polling like
the Pew Research Center’s and exit poll polls that
have been run by the networks have shown that
people overwhelmingly find the debates helpful. And indeed, exit poll
data show for years that they have been one of
the top factors in helping people decide how to vote. That’s not to say they
necessarily change minds. It is to say that people
find them helpful. As long as that is
the case, I think you can say this is a positive,
productive use of 90 minutes. If that ceases to
be the case, then I think we should look at a
different way of thinking about these things. Right. And the town hall
format, you said it started about two cycles ago. I wonder how your own thinking
evolved over the years about the formats and how best
to serve the mission of the CPD and the purpose of
the debates and how, particularly the
town hall format, ’cause it’s so
different– and I imagine it’s a nightmare, probably,
in terms of organization compared to the other debates–
so I wonder how that fits into the broader mission
and how it had helped evolve the purpose of the debates? Town hall actually
started in ’92. Mr. Clinton had been very
familiar with doing town halls during his primary campaign. He really liked them. And so the campaigns asked
if one could be town hall. It was at the
University of Richmond. And it was wonderful. Working with the town hall
participants is fabulous. These are not
people who normally are standing with a
microphone asking a question of a presidential candidate. They take their
jobs very seriously. And the public loves
them, because they identify with a fellow
citizen getting up and asking a question. What is increasingly
difficult is the recruitment of those citizens. We actually have the
Gallup organization recruit the citizens who are from
the metropolitan area around the university
where these are being held. And now, with such a
reduction in landlines and an increasing
polarization of voters, it is hard to find
undecided voters that you can find through
standard methodological survey techniques. So the question is, how can
you make this move forward in terms of the
modern feel of it and the spontaneous feel
that that first one had, where it isn’t managed? It is still fresh, and it
still allows the citizens to have that interaction with
the candidates, which is, as you all know, it’s
very different than when a candidate is asking a
professional journalist or answering, rather, a question
from a professional journalist. Yeah. And so you mentioned, I think,
something very interesting, which is– and I’ve been thinking
about this a lot as well recently in Tunisia– one of the criticisms
about debates– we have a debate going on
tonight, which you have nothing to do with, ’cause it’s
organized by the DNC. But one of the
criticisms we often hear is that debates can foment
the very kind of conflict that seems to be fueling
polarization in America and many other countries. And yet it seems to
me that highlighting some of the
controversial of opinion is actually really,
really important. So it seems like there
is a fine line sometimes between fomenting some
of that polarization and adding fuel to the fire,
but at the same time informing voters, which sometimes has
to happen through highlighting the very differences that
we’re so polarized about. So I wonder how you strike that
balance in your own thinking. Format is key. And if you can simplify
format so that you have an elegant and
understandable format that is driven by a moderator who
will understand that this is about getting the input
of the candidates, that is about the
most important thing that can happen on the stage. You cannot change what a
candidate comes on the stage determined to do. And you cannot change how
individuals are going to relate to each other, whether there
be two or three in our debates, how they relate
to the moderator, how they decide
to use this event. These are critical in
people’s political careers. So no candidate is going
to come without thinking about this very carefully. Jim Lehrer has done
a fascinating series of interviews in an oral
history project he’s done with us of the former
debate participants. And I remember when he
did President Carter. President Carter said, “If
you’re on a presidential debate stage, and you haven’t
experienced and studied enough so that you
could anticipate 97% of the questions,
if not more, then you really haven’t
been paying attention.” This is not something
that would just have all of a sudden occurred to you. “Oh, I guess I better study up.” Right. But I do think that
the big role for us is to try to keep
improving format and to make sure you choose a
moderator who will take this on with the seriousness of
purpose and understanding that their job is to
try to remove themselves from the dynamic as much as they
can while keeping it on course. Yeah, that’s very interesting. And Janet, you’ve seen
so many of these debates. Is there any particular anecdote
or kind of behind the scenes memory that you’d like to
share that sort of stuck with your mind that
was maybe funny? How long have you all got? [LAUGHTER] There are endless funny things. And you need humor in the
debate business, or you would– you should go do something else. But there is always something
that you need to anticipate. I don’t know how many of you
are familiar with the power failure in 1976, when, during
one of the Ford-Carter debates, the power failed. That was when the debates
were being sponsored by the League of Women Voters. And much to the League’s horror,
there was a power failure, and Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter
were on the stage for– think about it, people– 27 minutes of silence while
the problem was solved. The most awkward 27
minutes in their lives. Quite, quite, quite. And that is one of the most
interesting pieces of Jim’s interviews with the
former presidents, is talking with each of those
gentlemen about what they did. We have triple redundancy on
everything in the debate hall so that you are prepared
for moments like that. But you still have earpieces
that fail on the moderators, and you still have
backup generators that fail one third of
the way through the debate because they were
poorly maintained, which, it turns out,
means you were not flying with a backup system on that. So it is always something that
you hope you’re on your toes and that the whole
team has double checked and triple checked
so that when you start, you’ve got a pretty good
chance of having everything work the way it should. These are the ultimate
example of something where you want to make sure
that, when the debate is over, no one is talking
about the sponsor. They are talking
about the candidates, the issues, the
format, whatever. But they’re not talking
about the sponsor because something hadn’t been
really paid attention to. I do want to go back to two
things that are often put forward by critics of debates. One is fact checking. I know the means
of checking facts as the debates happen
are somewhat limited. And moderators are
doing, I think, an increasingly good job
at doing it on the spot. But there is only so much
you can do if the fact can’t be checked immediately. So I wonder what your
thoughts are on that and how they’ve evolved. The second thing is– and this is a broader problem
in political discourse– which is that politicians
present promises that are often not kept. And I should very briefly
say what we’re trying to do about this in Tunisia. We have a program
called 99 Days, where we’re going to bring
back the president on the 30th of January and
rebroadcast segments in which we asked him in the recent
presidential debates to present his priorities
for the first 99 days in office, hence the name. We’re hoping that will increase
the cost of these promises, because they’re made so easily. But I do wonder, what
are your general thoughts on fact checking and
electoral promises? The Commission’s feeling
about fact checking, which is supported
by our moderators, who make up their
own minds on this, is it’s a practical
impossibility in live terms during a debate, is that there
is no way for a moderator to continuously check the facts
while the debate is going on. I personally don’t see how
it would work in terms of, which facts do you check? Where does a fact become
sufficiently unimportant so that you don’t think
you should say, well, that actually is not right? Some of our moderators believe
that the ultimate fact checkers are the candidate’s
opponent or opponents. That’s the person that
should be checking the facts. I don’t know how you
do it in real time during a general election
debate and ever keep the debate moving. I think you get stuck
on the back and forth, and I don’t think that
serves the public at all. The good news is that
never before has it been so easy for any
of us to get access to some kind of data, where,
in fact, we are checking facts. I realize that that puts
the onus on each one of us. But that, arguably,
is where it belongs in terms of our obligations
as consumers of this news. And I just don’t
believe there is a way to do it in real time,
at least in our debates. I don’t think it makes any sense
to think that the moderator is here driving the debate, and
the fact checker is here, and while the fact
checker is not speaking, that that person is
slipping little pieces of paper to the moderator that say that
that number about employment is not current. I think it just gets
incredibly awkward and jerky. And then someone is going to
come in and say, “No, actually, those aren’t the numbers
you should be using. The better data
set is this one.” I think you get hung
up on that as fast as you get out of the chute. Yeah, yeah. And any thoughts on election
promises and the broader frustration voters have
with promises not kept, which is all too common? You know, I think
increasingly, particularly newspapers are trying to do that
kind of a disciplined coverage. That’s outside the purview of
what the Commission can do. But I applaud what
all of you are doing. That’s an elegant thing
to come into the– I think that’s a
great answer, though, ’cause you’re sticking
with the mission, and it would seem
to be off mission. We’re broadly a
debate initiative. I understand you’re very focused
on the presidential debates. So that makes a lot of sense. But you’re right. Increasingly, news organizations
are actually doing that work, and it’s very important. I feel that we could move to
the international dimension so that we leave enough
time for the Q&A. So could you talk more generally
about CPD’s international work over– it’s been it’s been a long
time, right, since the– It’s been a long time. And you do this together
with the National Democratic Institute. And you run this network
called Debates International that we’re a member of. Talk a little more broadly
about what that network does, what the broader
philosophy is behind supporting international
groups like ours to hold these election debates. This work started
anecdotally, one on one. It was a unilateral effort
between the Commission and, as you mentioned, the
National Democratic Institute for International Affairs,
which has field offices all over the world. So there is an enormous
symbiosis between what they do and what we can do. And it means that if we go
into almost any country, there’s a good chance they’ll
either have a field office or they’ll have people that
are close who are natives and who know the language and
who know the political customs. It’s a very powerful
partnership to start with. The requests in the
beginning were basically from countries that
said, “We would like to think about debates. We don’t know where to start. We’re not sure how to
identify a good sponsor. We don’t know how to get
the candidates to agree. We don’t know how
to get these covered in a way that reaches
everybody in the country that wants to see it. We don’t know how
to pick a moderator or to train that person.” And in many countries,
as you can well imagine, where there’s state-owned
media, there’s already suspicion that
you won’t, in fact, get neutral coverage. So we started by just
giving this advice one off. And over time, it became
clear there was critical mass. And so I think it was
maybe 10, 12 years ago now. We started having
symposia where we would bring all of the
members of the network together, usually in Washington. But now every four years,
they come to a debate site, and we have this
symposium there. And that means they
get to actually see how the debate is being
produced and put together. And it is, as I said, it is
nothing short of inspiring. In many cases, the work that
these partners are doing is very dangerous. It is not supported or smiled
upon by incumbent officeholders or parties. And they are operating without
something that we have, which is, I would argue,
the most important asset, and that is most of those places
do not have public expectation that debates will come about. At the end of the day, that is
the single most powerful lever to make debates happen,
is the public saying, “We want to see these people.” In at least half of
our cycles, there has been pushback from
one or more candidates. Other countries, I think,
look at us and say, “Well, this never happens in
the United States.” It does happen. It happens everywhere. And the single thing that is
the most powerful influence on candidates is
the public saying what we have now heard from all
of our general election leading candidates, including
incumbents, going back to 1976. And it literally comes
down to something as fundamental as, what are you
doing that is more important? Why can you not find 90 minutes
on these three nights, which are known a year
ahead of time, to come and be part of
this conversation? There is deep suspicion
that this is not OK. You should come and
be a part of this. And that means that when we
work with these different countries– and
it’s a pure network, we all learn from each other– one of the big obstacles
is to say, how do you tell your citizens
this is something that they have the right
to see and that they should make clear they want to see. That is the way you will
get over this very, very important initial threshold. Beyond that, there are
all of these other, as you know well, big obstacles. And one of them, to go back
to what I said about the White House pool, is in
many countries, there is no tradition of
having competitive media agree to show something to
all of their audiences across their platforms. And that’s a game changer. In some of these countries, they
have to pay for the airtime. That’s expensive. So it’s been absolutely
extraordinary. And of course, what’s
happened is, as we are proof, we’ve all become good friends. And we work together on
not only the debates, but on other issues. One of the most
inspiring things is when I get one of
these email chains when one of the
member countries is in the way of a
natural disaster. And particularly
in the Caribbean, it is absolutely amazing to
see all these little members of the international network
popping up and going, “We’re OK. We’ve got power. Next one on the list, let
us know when you’re OK. If not, what do you need?” And it’s not like they
have a great deal to share. So these bonds have
become very strong. That’s super interesting. And you made me remember
a question I always wanted to ask, actually. At the moment, there is nothing
that prevents in the United States a candidate from– except public
opinion and the cost that that would be
to their campaign– there’s nothing
that prevents you from saying you don’t
want to do a debate. Is that correct? Correct. There is no law that
says you must debate, regardless of whether
you take public funding or anything else. OK. So it’s just the cost to your
campaign and what people think. ‘Cause I did hear recently
from Matt, especially– Matt Dippell runs on
a day-to-day basis the International
Debates Network. And Argentina is an
interesting case, because there, the
electoral debates are essentially mandated by law. And you lose access to public
funds for your campaign if you choose not to
participate in a debate. And I guess it also
raises another question, and perhaps you could
comment on both. You know, there’s
always some margin to negotiate with campaigns
about some details of the debates. And at the same time, you
don’t want the campaigns to dictate in an unreasonable
way the shape or the timing or whatever it may
be of the debates. So I wonder where
you draw that line and how you feel about the case
of Argentina, which, I think, South Korea is
doing the same now. If you could comment on that, I
think it’d be very interesting. We determine the places, the
dates, the length of time, the moderators, the
format of the debates. It’s the opinion of
my board of directors that if something affects
the educational value of the debates, that
is non-negotiable. If something affects the set or
another aspect that a candidate or both feel strongly about,
if there is one or two or three people on the stage, whether
there is a strong inclination to want to stand
as opposed to sit– we believe sitting with the
moderator offers a very much better chance for a
really good conversation– if there is some kind of
strong feeling about that, it makes every bit of sense
to negotiate those things so that, in fact, you don’t
get stuck on one of those. It’s also extremely important
that when you turn on a debate, each candidate is equally
respected in terms of what you are seeing. If you think about the range
of different candidates, their age, their
stature, their coloring, it is an enormous tribute to
the skills of our lighting designer, our set designers,
that no one ever has come to us and said, “We thought that
our candidate, in fact, got the short end of
the stick in terms of appearing in a way that
was complimentary, respectful, dignified.” The set needs to be
constructed the exact same way. There will be
discrepancies in height. There will be things like
Senator Dole’s inability to use both arms with the
same level of fluidity. You must be respectful to that. It would be completely wrong
to say, “This is the plan, and you have no say.” So we try to negotiate
those things in a way that is respectful and serious. And I’m happy to say, I
think, for the most part, that’s exactly the way
they’ve been resolved. Yeah, yeah. And I think one final question,
which is somewhat complex, but so if the last few
decades are any indication– and this is a prediction– I think what we might see,
particularly in the Arab world, in the next 10 years
or so is similar to how elections for authoritarian
regimes at some point became a way to
legitimize their power. Then election
observation missions, especially the lenient ones
that started popping up in the region– facade
election observation missions, one should call them– started becoming
a fashion in order to legitimize these elections. My prediction–
in the ’20s, we’ll increasingly see sort of
facade election debates. And as a matter
of fact, I’ve just come from a country
in the Arab world– I was there last week– where
the election authority invited me, and I formed that thought as
I left the meeting, that that’s where we’re headed. So my question is, is
any debate a good debate and worth of support? Or where should
one draw the line? And I realize this is complex. But I’m asking you
out of self-interest, ’cause I’m not sure where to
draw that line at this point. But it’s very clear that not
every country’s debate project is necessarily a good project,
because this trend might become a reality in the coming years. So I wonder if you have any
thoughts to share about that? No, that’s a very good point. And indeed, we do get
contacted by some groups that say they want to put on a
debate in a certain country. And obviously, the
first thing you do is to do a lot of
research and talk extensively with that group and find out, do
they actually have credibility as a debate sponsor? What is their objective? Is it, in fact, to
do something that is good for the democratic
efforts that are going on in that country,
or is it actually serving their own agenda more? And particularly ones
where you discovered that the relationship between
the group and the country are a bit tenuous– we have very scarce resources. And you obviously don’t want to
spend even time, not to mention time and money, because one of
the things, as you know well, that we do where it’s possible
and where it would be helpful is to send a SWAT team to
the country that is putting on a debate so that
we can actually have some of our
production people on the ground to help with this. It would not be a good
use of those resources if you discover this
group just does not– even if they are completely
sincere in their purposes– they have no chance of actually
breaking in and being seen as a legitimate debate sponsor. You need to try to
figure out, is that a good way to try to help? But you also want
to be completely respectful of the circumstances
in a country, which we can’t possibly
know as well as people who are in that process. It raises another thing which
is very important to mention, as you know intimately. We never go to any
other country, any NGO, and say, “Your debates
should look like ours.” That would be all wrong. There may be pieces of our
debates that they find helpful and appropriate, and there
may be a lot that they don’t. And it would be completely
wrong to go in and say, “You should do what we do.” Well, you’ve certainly
set a standard, because CNN described our
debates as “US-style debates.” And I never saw
them that way, but I think that’s just a
fact that you’ve been doing this for the longest. So it’s certainly
an example that can’t be ignored by
other debate sponsors. Janet, thank you so much. This was really,
really interesting I’m done with my part
of the questions. And I think we’ll use
the remainder of the time to take your
questions, unless you have a final thought
that you’d like to share before we move to the Q&A? No, let’s move to a Q&A. OK, let’s do it. OK, [INAUDIBLE]
needs the mic, right? Or what did she
say about the mic? Do we need to pass it? I can pass it around. Thanks, guys. OK, thank you so
much for coming. So with the recognition that the
Commission doesn’t have control over everything, I just
wanted to ask about questions on climate change,
because this is an issue of enormous importance
to the public interest, but in 2016, there
wasn’t a single question on climate change. So I was just curious if
you had any insight on how that decision was made
and what can be done to avoid that omission in 2020. The questions, as I
mentioned, were all determined by the moderators. I think it’s inconceivable
to any of those moderators or future moderators
that there wouldn’t be a question on climate change. But I’ll also tell you the
philosophy of our moderators, which I think is a good one,
is if you pick really big topic areas, what you are doing
is implicitly signaling to the candidate, you
should invoke topics that you think
are important that pertain to the economy or
national security or whatever. And I think we would all agree
that climate change comes under those rubrics. The moderators
believe very strongly that these topics and
questions, which are only designed to just get
the conversation going, need to be as broad as possible. So in fact, the leeway for
an individual candidate to introduce something that they
think is important is there. And also, I can assure
you the moderators go out and do a lot of research on
what people are concerned about. And we invite people that
want to submit questions, either individuals or groups,
to do that to the moderator, or send it to the
Commission, and we’ll send it to the moderator. But most of our moderators
step away from their day-to-day journalism responsibility so
that they can spend time not only researching, but– Bob Schieffer, I can’t
remember how many experts he went to talk to in an
effort to try to understand how to narrow the topics that he
was going to ask the three cycles that he did
these to really get in-depth, thoughtful input. Thank you. I actually had a couple
questions prepared for you, if you don’t mind. So my advisor at the
Annenberg Public Policy Center does research on debates,
Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Yes. And so she argues these two
points about audience sound and why you can hear the
audience clapping or cheering or booing after an
answer, considering it’s a room of probably 40 to
200 people or 300, depending on the size of the event,
and how much of an influence that really small,
preselected group has on the people
watching the debate, and if you could speak to that. Live audiences are
preferred by candidates. That will not surprise you. It is a lot easier to
look at all of you for us than it would be to look
at a camera back there and to feel as though
we were actually addressing real people. And so candidates prefer
to be able to see people. Regardless of where
we do the debates, the audience is very small,
and the tickets that we get go to the students
at the university where we hold the debate. It will not surprise you
that if you said to them, “Go in, take a breath, and
let it out in 90 minutes,” they would do that. They are honored to
be there, and they are totally respectful. So the good news is you
have to go back to 1988 at Pauley Pavilion at UCLA
to find a serious noise issue until 2016. And it is a source of
enormous concern to us, because obviously, it’s
totally distracting to the home audience. The co-chairs of the Commission
remind the audience– the live audience– of
that when we get going. The moderator
reminds the audience. I remind the audience. And we have actually
had times in ’88 where the moderator would
turn around and say, “Please,” because number one, it takes
time away from the candidates, and number two, it’s confusing
to the home audience, ’cause they’re going, who is
this coming from, and why? It goes back to
the fact that if– I think there are
a couple things. Number one, if a candidate
is going to actually say something that is designed to
get the audience to respond, including a laugh, the
audience members are people. They’re going to respond
in a way that is human. But the other piece of it
is that, unfortunately, one of the byproducts of
all of these primary debates is that there is a
genuine, concerted effort to get the audience engaged by
a lot of different participants in those debates. So I think people
get into the habit of thinking that it’s meant to
be interactive, and it’s not. And we are constantly
working on it to see how you can literally
make it not happen at all. But there are isolated
instances where it does. And I agree with you,
it’s not helpful. So moving forward, would
you say, in light of 2016, would it be more useful to– like, is it up to
you to the Commission or the media organizations
that kind of organize the moderators to– ’cause a lot of these audiences
are actually miked, I mean, ’cause we would be able
to hear them on TV, even in the room
wasn’t miked itself. Yeah, the audience isn’t
miked, and they’re not lit. OK. The only exception to that are
the town meeting participants, who obviously have
hand-held, and they are lit. But that would be an
invitation to more problem. You’ll notice, if you turn
on the primary debates, you will see the audience. Yep. You won’t see our audience
more than just the first couple of rows. And in large part, that is
wash from the debate stage. But we do not lit them, and
they are certainly not miked. Great. That would not be a good idea. And one other question about
candidates’ kind of incivility. Because I know if you look
back to even some conversations that Dick Cheney had
with Al Gore in 2000 or when Paul Ryan and
Joe Biden were debating, you could see it
was a much more kind of cordial interaction
than when Pence and Tim Kaine were interacting. And is that up to the
moderators to decide what the terms are of
when they’ll intervene and cut a candidate
off and say, “Please stop talking over each other. We can’t really hear anyone”? Or do you set those
rules in advance? You hope that that will
be implicit in what the candidates understand
is the better way to do it because of what you just said. When you’re talking
over someone, nobody can hear
what you’re saying. So it’s actually incredibly
counterproductive. Moderators have different
ways of dealing with that. And it’s one of the
reasons we think being seated at a
table with a moderator is so much better, because
let’s assume the two of us are the candidates and
you’re the moderator. You can actually
just put a hand up if he starts to interrupt me. That signals, I
will call on you, but don’t break into her answer. Right. And it doesn’t talk over
him, but it makes the point. It’s very delicate, because
it will not surprise you that if a moderator
puts a foot wrong, the public goes nuts and
says, “I don’t think that was respectful to the senator
that you told him, ‘Not now.'” So you want
to be very delicate, and you want to be equal about
how you enforce those rules. [INAUDIBLE] Has a candidate ever
materially objected to a moderator or a
choice of moderator? This question sort of comes
in the context of increasing allegations, accusations
of various political bias or partisanship,
politicization of traditionally conceived, very impartial,
mainstream media news sources. Thank you for raising that
question, because to go back to the question of oddball
backstage memories, fortunately, this
was not one of ours. But in 1984, the
League of Women Voters actually went through
103 names of journalists before they got a
panel that was seated. And that was because
of candidate vetoes. Needless to say, that is
a really terrible thing. A lot of those names got out. And if you want
to read something that is truly funny, it is an
article that was written by one of the three that actually
were finally seated, who wrote a terribly funny
article that basically said, “OK, I’m not proud. I’m getting on the plane. I’m going. I’m going to be a questioner.” And then started off into
a fantasy of all the girls that had turned him down
for dates in high school and how now they
were going to see that that was a big mistake,
because he was on the world stage. It is hysterical. That was a mess. And that was one of the
concerns that actually was addressed when we
were started, which was, that can’t happen. That’s a terrible
thing to have happen. So what we have done,
we had a little bit of a hybrid in 1987-88. And then, since then, we
have chosen the journalists, the moderators, without
any input or veto authority by the campaigns. That’s not good. That’s not good for anybody. You obviously want to be
respectful to journalists as well as to the campaigns. You can’t choose somebody
that you recognize. One or another
candidate is going to say, “That person will
never be fair to me.” I mean, it’s just a given. So you want to take
that into account, try to find people that will
take this very seriously. But it blew up after
that technique really was taken advantage
of way too much. And Allison had a question. Thank you. So it was a few
minutes late, so I apologize if this
was somehow covered while I was running from class. But one thing I was
really interested to learn was that Article 52 of
the Tunisian electoral law guarantees equal opportunities
for all candidates. And I was curious
in what ways you see this insistence
on equal speaking time for candidates as strengthening
or weakening prospects for a healthy debate. Do you mean during the debate? During the debate. Well, we actually measure
it so that, in fact, at the end of a debate, you’re
quite sure that the candidates were within a very
small margin, which is a different challenge
than when the debates– when we first got going,
it was 45-second question, two-minute answer, two-minute
answer, one-minute rebuttal, one-minute rebuttal,
next question, which, if you had a third
candidate like we did in ’92, you do the arithmetic
that much further on. And the whole debate
went like that, so that unless I consistently
did not use my time, you could be pretty sure that,
in fact, we were all equal. Now with the
15-minute pods, there is no stopwatch on one,
two, or one, two, three. So what we’re doing
at the production table is to keep track of
that so that, by the time you’re 45 minutes into the
debate, if you need to, you can say to the
moderator, “One person really is a little bit heavy on time.” And I’m glad to say that in
the last, well, umpteen cycles, we have never had a
big disparity on that. If you have never watched
the Saturday Night Live send-ups of the debates
going back to ’88, you must. And one of the
single funniest was a takeoff on the ’88 debates
with Mr. Bush and Mr. Dukakis. And Dana Carvey, of course,
was Mr. Bush, and a journalist who was meant to be Diane
Sawyer was asking him the questions, “Mr. Bush.” And the Dana Carvey Mr.
Bush character consistently answered her in about seven
seconds, at which point, she would say, “You
still have a minute 45.” And he would do that,
Dana Carvey, and then he would start again and do
another seven-second answer. It is laugh-out-loud funny. So if you want to give
yourself a gift, pull it up. But that’s very
important, obviously. You can’t have a debate where
everybody comes away and says, “We didn’t get
the speaking time. We didn’t get the
same questions.” That’s another thing
that is interesting. Particularly some of our
partner countries abroad, they prefer not to have
the same questions asked of all the candidates. And sometimes they are dealing
with a lot of candidates. And they find it, I think, as
much for interest as anything else, is that you want to just
keep asking the same question. In our debates, I think
you’d get roundly criticized if the candidates didn’t
have the same chance to answer the same question
without turning it 20 degrees one way or another
and positing it again. Yes? Thank you. So my question is,
so in South Korea, there is one issue,
is people do not watch a presidential
debate, although it’s really important for them to
vote for the right candidate. And even in here, there are
concerns around young voters are less interested
in politics compared to other generations of voters. Is there any kinds of
discussions or efforts ongoing in your organizations
to reach more people or increase audience
attention to the debate? You just provided
the perfect segue, because I was going to
turn this around and start putting you guys to work. The answer is yes, absolutely. You want to make sure you get
the biggest audience you can and that you reach people
in ways and in media that are user-friendly
to those individuals. So that basically, you roll out
a gigantic welcome mat and say, “We hope you will watch. We hope you will
find them helpful. We hope you will have
conversations around them and that you will
look to other media to help you understand
these issues before you go into the debate, and then
that you will discuss them with people that
maybe you don’t agree with politically to
understand, what did you think, and what did other
people think about this?” We started a focus
group series in ’92 to evaluate town
meeting, because it was the first time we did it,
and also single moderator. And it was fascinating. We only did 16 of them around
the country after each debate. And the single thing they
felt most strongly about was the value of the
focus group discussion. And they said, “We learned so
much more from discussing these with 16 other people
that we don’t necessarily agree with politically.” And the idea was you turned off
the debate after it was done, and you just talked about
what you’d seen and heard. It was the world’s simplest,
low-budget, low-tech idea to ever come out
of Washington, DC. And we’re trying to resurrect
that, because the fact of the matter is, these should
be events that everybody feels they want to watch, and it will
help them have a conversation. There’s no quiz. This shouldn’t be an
eat-your-spinach exercise. This should be,
here are the people that are now, at the end of
this long campaign, the leading candidates. And here’s what they believe. And here’s how that
relates to other offices that you will be voting on
when you go to the polls. And particularly, for
first-time voters, for people for whom English
is not their primary language, for people who have not been
in the habit of doing this, we want very much to try to
make this something that they feel belongs to them. And so my question, to turn
it back to all of you, is, to me, this is the
no-brainer use of technology, is that you should be
able to use technology in a way that actually
reaches out and invites this kind of participation. And what’s fascinating to us
is that, after many cycles of having this literally
breathless preoccupation with how you can insert
social media into the debates in real time, all
of a sudden, there is a recognition that that’s
a very risky proposition. And that is not necessarily
people, like individuals who are sitting in their
living room and watching this, and they genuinely
have something that they would like to say
or they would like to share, that this is subject to very
serious manipulation that in no way corresponds to
what individuals think. So it’d be very interesting
to me, now or at any time– because Belabes knows
how to reach me, I would welcome your
ideas at any point– what is the way to
do exactly that? What are ways to do
that that we haven’t used, that we should use? What’s the role for technology? And that, what is specifically
the role for social media, that actually steers clear of
the whole perilous area of manipulation and
misrepresentation which, as all of you
know, is very dangerous. I just had a couple
more questions for you, if you don’t mind. So my question is about
kind of theories– Shall we give a chance
just for folks to answer, if anybody has any thought
on Janet’s question, any preliminary ideas for
how to harness technology to innovate and improve
the presidential debates? In fact, Janet, you just
made me remember something. We’ve tried this in
our ongoing debates. And we also concluded that
it’s really, really hard to do the live social
media questions, because you actually end up
getting a lot of manipulation. So we stopped that
about three years ago, and I’m not in
favor of it myself. And yet it seems clear
that there is value, if we figure out how
to do it, to have technology sort of allow for
greater participation of home audiences. I don’t know how
to do it myself. But I think this is a
really important question. It is an important question,
and we’ve got time. So I hope we can find some
productive ideas on this. Are you still collaborating
with Facebook? I think one of the debates was
in collaboration with Facebook. Is that happening in 2020? We’re working with all of
the social media companies. But to be honest,
now, it’s equally with their cyber
offices, because I think they have
realized, in 2018, there were some things that
happened that are eye-opening. And so at the moment,
we’ve got collaborations that have to do with
outreach and civic education. But also, to keep
an eye, we always work with the Secret
Service, the FBI, DHS. And now we’re working
with– the social media companies have been very
vigorous in understanding that they’ve got to help
keep these conversations legitimate and productive. So that’s a new piece of
what we’ve been doing. Yeah. I’m sorry. Sorry to make you run around. I actually kind of have, like,
a maybe very basic question about the debates. What does success
look like to you? Earlier you talked about these
debates educating people. But as you noted,
we’re in an age with increasing polarization. So it seems like most
people do kind of have a view on which candidate
they want to succeed. So is the idea that you’re
hoping voters become more fluent in the issues, or
that they can better articulate a case for their
candidate, or is it that you want to bring in to
increase voter participation, since the US has one of the
lowest rates of participation among developed nations? Can you just say a bit more
on, after the general is done, like, you look back, what are
the metrics that you’re using? Viewership is key. If we looked at the viewership
and it was going south, that would be very concerning. It’s going in the
other direction. The numbers from exit polls, the
exit poll data, and the polling on whether people
found them helpful have held steady for years. And it’s very healthy numbers. We can’t get into the
entire real estate around voting,
because voting implies and it may involve partisan
activity, registration, et cetera. So we don’t get into that. The data I’ve seen that
ties debates to voting is a little hard to
decipher in terms of how you make the direct connection. There is work
that’s done on that. But to be honest, what
concerns us is refining format so that people feel as
though this is really about the candidates. This is not about
other participants. It’s not about timers. It’s not about interruptions. It’s not about props. It’s not about insignia. It’s about, with only
three to four weeks to go before the
general election, hearing from the people
with the leading chance to be elected President and Vice
President of the United States. It’s a mix of some objective,
empirical evidence and also the coverage of the
entire set of debates. The media, as you know
well, are very candid. And I think if the media
found these not events that have any kind of value or that
somehow we have not put them on in a way that was
neutral and professional, I am quite confident we
would hear about that. So that’s a murky way
of defining success. And it’s one of the
most interesting parts of what we do with the
international network, because in fact, it’s a
part of where they start, is, what is success? How will we know this
was worth the effort? And it varies
country to country. And if I can just
add to that, ’cause I also think it’s a really
interesting question. So the most important proxy
is, of course, the audience, because without
a large audience, you’re not reaching anybody. But we’re actually conducting
an experiment that Yale is part of with the Tunisian debates
that we recently did, ’cause we want to
look at another– ’cause it is an important proxy,
but it’s not the only one. So we want to look at the
quality of the debates and are commissioning
a paper to compare your debates to our debates– Uh-oh. –just to look at how the
debates actually live up to voters’ and citizens’
hope to inform them and allow them to make better and more
decisions at the ballot box. And we measure things like
the degree of civility and the choice of topics and how
they reflect citizen concerns and a couple of things. So this is still early stages. But you’re more than happy
to contribute in this ISP slash another
initiative project. And I’ll share the results
with you, of course. Thank you. Leah, I think you had another– Does anyone else have
questions before I– Nick? Go first. Go ahead. You sure? Go for it. Thank you very much for
the great, great talk. It was really illuminating. I have one question that
relates to potential third-party candidates. And what kind of
principles or guidelines do you follow when
deciding whether or not to deviate from the
sort of standard format that comes from a two-party
system as, I guess, the default option? The good news is,
there’s no default. The Federal Election
Commission’s requirements that we have prepublished,
objective criteria is the one that governs. Those criteria, which were
announced in October for 2020, are constitutional
eligibility, appearing on a sufficient number
of state ballots to have an arithmetic chance of
winning the electoral college, and then being at 15%
support in the polls as measured by, basically,
the middle of September– in other words, sufficiently
before the first debate to have preparation time. The 15% is derived from five
national opinion polls that are done by reputable,
large organizations with sufficient frequency
and a big enough sample base to be reliable. An average of those
is taken to see whether 15% has been reached. If it has, that individual is
invited to the first debate, and their vice
presidential candidate is invited to the vice
presidential debate. And the criteria are
reapplied between the first and the second and the
second and third debates. So that is something that
is rigidly adhered to. Those criteria are
applied to anyone whose name appears on at
least one state ballot and is registered with the FEC. No one need apply
to the Commission. Gallup, by the way, does
the advising on the polls. And since they do not poll
on presidential campaigns, there is no conflict there. But we don’t do that ourselves. They advise on it. Thank you. So to close, as I see we’re
kind of wrapping up right now, I was wondering about kind
of the theory of change and how you see debates as
affecting kind of the promises that people make in
debates and the proposals that they put forward. And how do you see that as
influencing public opinion on what citizens demand
of their government? For instance, I
know that you’re not in charge of primary debates. But a lot of primary
debates really do reshape the conversation
and what we kind of expect from certain parties. So how do you see
that as coming forward in presidential debates? And so the question–
is it related back to the question about
promises that are made, or? To some extent. But how do you think that
the kind of conversation that happens in
debates influences what people kind of expect
from their government? That’s an interesting
question, which I’m not sure I can tease out
from the larger observation that people watch these
in enormous numbers. They take in all this
different kind of information. What we always hope is
that people, in fact, are taking in information
that they hadn’t thought about in
the way that it’s being discussed in the debate. That may be the way
the moderator has asked a question has prompted
the candidates to answer in a way that leaves you,
the viewer, thinking, I never thought
about it that way. I have my own opinion
on this issue. But I didn’t realize
that that candidate was coming at it with
the particular approach that they are. So that what you hope is that
the audience will come away having been prompted
to think, which is one of the many reasons
that we try to say to people, “Take advantage of
the chance,” that this is the ultimate in what
I call C-SPAN television. This is your chance to hear
from this candidate unfiltered for 90 minutes. And so, to the extent
you can, stay off of social media that is simply
expressing your opinion on whether you like his tie– oh, oops, no tie– and other things that
are, to be honest, a distraction, and really try
to take away this substance, knowing there will
be a lot of time to compare notes with everybody
else who was watching, hopefully, in a way that will
prompt even more discussion. But that to miss
that opportunity, in fact, is to cheat yourself
on getting the best chance to understand the thinking. Is it exactly where you
thought it was going to be? Is it a little different? And does it change in response
to the candidate’s competitor or competitors or the
moderator or a citizen? Is it exactly what you
thought, or is it different? And I think that the number of
times that a specific moment– and I’m not talking
about gaffes. I’m talking about a
moment, particularly with town meeting,
where people will remember what a candidate
said in response to a citizen. That shows that there are
moments where people go, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming,”
or “That’s a little different than what I thought.” I hope there are
moments like that, such that, at least
in the aggregate, you’re coming away thinking,
I’m glad I watched. So Belabes, do you have
any closing thoughts? Thank you. No, thank you so much, Janet. It was really nice
to have you here. And I look forward
to being in touch. We all look forward to
watching the debates next year. And thank you so much for
the immensely important work you do. Thank you for coming to Yale. And we’ll hope to see you soon. I thank all of you. This was great. [APPLAUSE] I brought you
something from Tunisia. This is [INAUDIBLE].

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