Taking control: Why and how to start a debate commission in your state

June 26, 2019 11:00

There are 10 nervous people in Miami today, with another 10 expected tomorrow. They are the Democratic candidates for president chosen to appear on NBC in the first two debates of the 2020 campaign season.
It’s natural to be nervous. It’s live TV.
What’s particularly nerve-wracking for the candidates and their campaign staffs is the lack of control they’ll have tonight and tomorrow night. They’re used to running their own shows. They stage-manage their own rallies, decide which reporters they’ll talk to, where they’ll do a town hall and, most importantly, control their own message on websites and social media.       
But a debate is beyond a campaign’s control. Unless someone broke the rules, candidates don’t get to see the questions in advance. They can’t control how their opponents will behave. They can’t control the moderator(s).
I submit that’s a good thing.
Debates have become just about the last bastion of spontaneity in American politics. And that’s why it’s so important for RTDNA members to cover them every time, and to produce them when at all possible.
How debate commissions serve voters in four states
Presidential primary debates may be the province of networks (and stations like WMUR) and the general election debates fall under the purview of the Commission on Presidential Debates.
But there’s a growing need for statewide debate commissions to shut down the debate about debates at the state level. Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club of Cleveland, recognized the problem of an increasing number of candidates and campaigns for state and local office avoiding debates. That led to the formation of the Ohio Debate Commission, the fourth state to form such an organization.
Jill Zimon is the project director for the Ohio group. She says Moulthrop’s original vision was to “create statewide collaboration that would be a resource” for debate organizers.
They soon determined that wasn’t enough. In 2018, the brand new Ohio Debate Commission organized and produced two statewide debates—one for governor, one for U.S. Senate.
With the live broadcast and web streams of those debates, Ohio officially launched its debate commission.
In 2007, Indiana was the first state in the nation to form its own debate commission. Volunteers organized and produced three live gubernatorial debates in Indiana in 2008. Utah and Washington state followed. (Washington calls itself a debate coalition.) Zimon’s research indicates a half-dozen other states are considering commissions.

Indiana Debate Commission
Photo Credit: AP
Why more states should follow suit
Zimon says the goal is to establish a political environment that encourages debates in Ohio. She hopes the campaigns get the message, “It’s not OK to say we’re not going to debate.”
It’s an important message but not an easy sell for debate organizers.
Thirty-four U.S. Senate seats are up for election next year, but 30 may feature incumbents—all of whom are likely risk-averse and overseen by campaign managers who would see an unscripted debate as a risky proposition.
As of this writing, of the 11 gubernatorial races in 2020, all but one will have an incumbent.
That’s 40 campaigns at the top of the ticket across many states that are much more interested in controlling the message by crafting 30-second spots, choreographing rallies with perfectly placed signage and encouraging supporters to parrot talking points on social media.
Not so in a debate, where there is the possibility of an opponent mixing it up and drawing some rhetorical blood, and the campaigns surrender control of the optics—the city, the venue, the staging and the format.
Some stations may still overcome campaign apprehensions to organize their own debates, while others may partner with a newspaper, the League of Women Voters or some other organization.
But often, even the clout of two news organizations or one station and a civic group is not enough to land a debate. The solution is to join forces with your competitors to form a state debate commission.
That means you can’t score an “exclusive” with your own talent … but a televised debate on every channel is better than no debate at all. That’s what radio and TV stations have discovered in Indiana, Utah, Washington state and Ohio.
How to start a debate commission
The debate commissions in these states are not units of state governments, although Utah has received some public funds. They’re all-volunteer coalitions of media organizations, civic groups, professional associations, academics and citizen groups.
Those volunteers must do it all, from registering as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit to recruiting a board of directors and legions of volunteers to seeking donations and in-kind help. Not to mention finding venues, moderators, broadcast production partners and more. There’s always more.
Kyle Niederpruem, a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, helped launch Indiana’s commission. She says it was a different atmosphere in 2007.
“It was more serene time, a more diplomatic time,” Niederpruem remembers. These days, it’s “more raucous and disagreeable.”  
Hey, no one said this would be easy. But it’s manageable if you follow Niederpruem’s four main steps and remember a few warnings.
First, she says, make a statement that you’re “legit” and form that 501(c)(3). That makes fundraising so much easier.
Second, she says, find a broadcaster with commercial production experience to help guide your new organization. I’ll add here that debates are creatures of video just as sporting events are. You have to see it through that lens.
Third, be willing to experiment with formats. Zimon says the Ohio Debate Commission stressed to its partner organizations and the campaigns that 2018 “was a pilot, an experiment.” Indiana had three different debate formats in its first year, including a sit-down “conversation.”
Niederpruem said the fourth step was to communicate—with state party leaders, campaign officials, and of course, within the commission’s own partner groups, board members and volunteers.
She remembers being surprised at the attitude of the political pros, which she described as “relief.” They expressed “if someone can take all of the media ego out of our hands, then great.”
In most states, campaigns are besieged by requests for debates from TV and radio stations, newspapers, political websites, community groups, activists, old-style civic groups and clubs and more. Candidates don’t want to be the bad guy who says no to the Rotary or the local paper and TV station.
What to plan for on debate night
If getting a debate commission up and running is a marathon, then debate nights can be Heartbreak Hill. That’s when what Niederpruem calls “shenanigans” can pop up out of nowhere and threaten the integrity of the process and the event.
Like when supporters of one candidate all show up in matching T-shirts or a campaign operative or close supporter tries to pose as an “ordinary citizen” to ask a question in the debate.
Niederpruem says you have to establish rules, communicate them and live by them. It’s really all about a level playing field for all concerned—even within the commission itself. Prospective members of the Indiana Debate Commission board have to sign a disclosure statement to reveal any ties to special interest or advocacy groups.
You have to make your group bulletproof from incoming accusations of bias or conflict of interest. That may mean politely declining certain corporate or advocacy group donations, in addition to scrutinizing all potential board members.
That’s one reason it’s so easy for journalists to be involved. They usually work for news organizations that require the same disclosure and also prevent political involvement.
Representatives of the first four debate commissions plan to meet later this summer to exchange ideas, review best practices and discuss how to make themselves available to the other states considering becoming a part of what could become a movement.
If you launch a debate commission in your state, maybe you’ll no longer have to do the obligatory story on candidates debating about debates. Then, score one for democracy.
Disclosure: Kevin Finch was the founding president of the Indiana Debate Commission while also serving as a news director in Indianapolis.


2019 Research