Eighteen good-governance and media watchdog groups demanded on Thursday to see the lengthy, and secret, contract governing the upcoming presidential debates.
Led by Open Debates, a leading critic of the process, the groups, which include Public Citizen, Common Cause and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates, which hosts the forums, and called on them to release the contract.
Every four years, the two major campaigns work out an elaborate contract governing everything from whether pens and pencils can be used to what kind of questions the candidates may ask each other. So far, Open Debates has been able to get its hands on the 1988 and 2004 agreements. All the other agreements have been kept secret.
The 2004 agreement, for instance, featured the following language about the debate moderators: "If any proposed moderator fails to execute a copy of this agreement at least seven (7) days prior to the proposed date of the debate he or she is to moderate, the two campaigns will agree upon and select a different individual to moderate that
The debates are always a highlight of any election season, but they are also routinely criticized for their exclusion of third-party candidates, their corporate funding, and the control exerted over them by the Democrats and Republicans.
Beyond that, there are the evergreen concerns about the lack of diversity amongst the debate moderators -- concerns that reached a relative fever pitch in 2012.
This time around, the Commission has drawn fire for giving the candidates the topics (though not the questions) of the first debate ahead of time. But the group, perhaps in response to the aforementioned external pressures, has also loosened up the format somewhat, structuring it in 15-minute segments that will feature more direct conversation between the candidate.
There is relatively little chance, though, that the full agreement will be voluntarily released by the campaigns.
The first debate will be held in Denver on Oct. 3.