Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Broadcasters and political planners turned tonight’s presidential debate into a debate of their own this week. In the name of journalistic freedom, the networks simply ignored rules outlined by the Commission on Presidential Debates that curtailed camera shots and other images.

“They set forth 32 pages of restrictions — an attempt to stage the debate as they would stage a political convention,” said Princell Hair, CNN’s vice president for news. “We intend to cover this debate as we have covered debates in the past — with every single camera angle we have access to.”

Specifically, the commission had called a halt to the provocative split screen, typically featuring the eye-rolling reaction of one candidate to the other in mid-argument.

Those were fighting words, though.

Fox News, NBC and MSNBC, CBS News and ABC News agreed: The commission could not dictate how each network would use the video feed from the first of three debates between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, which begins at 9 p.m.

The nonpartisan commission itself — founded in 1987 to produce and sponsor presidential and vice-presidential debates — remained philosophical about the renegade networks yesterday.

“There are certain things we can’t control. And we have no control over how the networks use their cutaway shots,” said the group’s co-chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf.

The dust-up won’t get in the way, according to some.

“A real debate is still going to take place here. I have faith that the actual event itself will outweigh the restrictions and the discussion. It’s too important to the country, and the candidates know it. Therefore, they’ll get their messages out there,” Mr. Hair said.

The news channels plan an average six hours of prime-time debate coverage; among them, Fox News leads in ratings, with an average nightly audience of 1.8 million, compared with 882,000 viewers at CNN and 421,000 at MSNBC, according to Nielsen numbers released Tuesday.

Broadcast networks will air the debates in full, leading up to local newscasts. NBC News has dominated evening prime time this week, with 9.4 million viewers each night, compared with 8.1 million for ABC News and 6.8 million for CBS News.

C-SPAN, meanwhile, will offer commentary-free debate coverage, complete with an hour devoted to the “media spin room” — staged broadcast appearances by political operatives after the debate.

“We’re the media covering the media,” noted C-SPAN spokeswoman Robin Scullin yesterday.

Meanwhile, the debate commission had other critics.

In fact, an activist organization of law professors and other academics who oppose “dangerous corporate actions” opposes the debate’s official sponsors, which include American Airlines, Anheuser-Busch, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Discovery Channel.

“The purpose of presidential debates is voter education, not to promote corporations’ political agendas or products, or to boost their sagging public-relations images,” the group said yesterday.

“The American public deserves debates that are not for sale to corporations with legislative agendas pending before Congress and the White House,” stated the group, adding that corporate banners have been visible on camera in past debates.

• Contact Jennifer Harper at or 202/636-3085.

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