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Glenn Greenwald: Presidential Debates Highlight “Faux Objectivity” of Mainstream Journalists

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“The issue is not what separates Romney and Obama, but how much they agree. This hidden consensus has to be exposed,” writes Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald about the presidential debates as he criticizes the recent performances of the debate moderators. Greenwald also criticizes the exclusion of third-party candidates. “Only by excluding those candidates and having the two parties focus on the tiny differences that they have … can this mythology be maintained that we have massive and real choice in this country,” Greenwald says. We also speak to George Farah, author of “No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryOct 16, 2012Secret Debate Contract Reveals Obama and Romney Campaigns Exclude Third Parties, Control Questions
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are George Farah of Open Debates and Glenn Greenwald, who just wrote a very interesting piece about how—who gets to ask the questions. He is author of the book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. But his piece in The Guardian is the one we want to talk about. Let’s turn to a question on—by moderator Martha Raddatz during the vice-presidential debate, when she asked the two candidates, Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden, this question.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Let’s talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process. Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive?

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, can you comment on the question?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, the question is grounded on an assumption that is not just dubious but very vociferously debated among the nation’s leading economists, which is the idea that Social Security and Medicare are going broke. In the case of Social Security, it’s almost impossible to make that case that it actually is going broke. The Social Security actually makes money. To the extent that it is burdened with that, it’s because other government programs, whether it be military spending or all kinds of corporate cronyism, create all kinds of debt that Social Security essentially ends up funding.

And with regard to Medicare, the same thing. Lots of economists have pointed out that Medicare, with a few minor alterations, will be economically sound for many decades. This notion that it’s going broke is something that lots of right-wing millionaires have promulgated as a way of pressuring Americans into feeling like they have to give up their basic entitlements.

And so, to watch Martha Raddatz, posing as an objective journalist, embracing what is an extremely controversial premise in her question, and then watching both candidates accept that assumption rather than challenge them, sort of is the microcosm of how these debates work, which is, they pose as objective, neutral moderators designed to have this wide-ranging debate, when in reality it takes place within a very suffocating, small confine of ideas. And as George has been detailing, that’s what it’s designed to do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn, Glenn, to another question that was raised during the debate, and this one on foreign policy. This is again moderator Martha Raddatz asking the candidates about Iran.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Let’s move to Iran. I’d actually like to move to Iran, because there’s really no bigger national security—

REP. PAUL RYAN: Absolutely.

MARTHA RADDATZ: —this country is facing. Both President Obama and Governor Romney have said they will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, even if that means military action. Last week, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates said a strike on Iran’s facilities would not work and, quote, “could prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations.” Can the two of you be absolutely clear and specific to the American people, how effective would a military strike be?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Glenn Greenwald, your comments on the Iran question?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, there again you see the core assumption of her question, the idea that there is no greater national security—it’s unclear if she said “issue” or “threat.” I think she just left out the word, but what she was clearly asserting was that, in terms of the array of national security challenges America faces, Iran is the most important, at the top of the list. This idea is ludicrous; it’s laughable. Iran has a minuscule military budget when compared to the United States. It is surrounded militarily, has been encircled by the United States for a decade. It has no capability to attack the United States and demonstrated no propensity to do so and would be, as Hillary Clinton once infamously said, obliterated, instantly destroyed, if it tried. So this idea that they pose any kind of national security threat to the United States is one of those myths that has been used to keep fear levels high and to justify continuous military spending and all sorts of abridgments at home to get the Americans to think we need to be in endless war. And here is the neutral moderator embracing that premise, though it’s not even debatable, as what will shape the entire Iran discussion.

Moreover, the question that she asked, if you noticed, was strictly about the efficacy of military strikes. Will a military strike on Iran advance American interests, or will it achieve a strategic goal? Whether the United States has the legal and moral right to attack Iran, whether it will create all kinds of havoc in the world, whether this will cause millions and millions and millions of Muslims to hate the United States even more is something that is just never considered, because the assumption that the United States has the legal and moral right to attack Iran is something that both the Republican and Democratic parties agree on and don’t even debate. By excluding third-party candidates, you ensure that that’s not even in question.

The same is true for the sanctions regime. Both parties, both candidates competed to say who supported a stronger sanction regime, which of course is causing extreme suffering for the Iranian people, the way the sanctions regime in Iraq for a decade not only caused suffering but killed hundreds of thousands. That, too, is completely excluded from the debate. So you don’t just have third-party candidates being excluded by—as a result of these rules; what you have is the vast bulk of political opinions and political facts being excluded because these moderators are chosen very specifically to ensure that they will embrace only the orthodoxy shared by both parties while posing as objective, neutral and non-ideological actors.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, we’re going to reconnect with you, so we’re going to drop our Democracy Now! video connection with you and go for a moment to the clip of third-party candidates, because Democracy Now! broke the sound barrier with the first presidential debate when we expanded the debate live, in real time, to include responses from third-party presidential contenders who were shut out of the official event. You know, the first debate was at University of Denver. We were just down the road in Littleton at a Comcast studio with similar podiums, with a blue backdrop just like the presidential candidates had. And after Jim Lehrer asked the question to President Obama, gave him two minutes, then to Mitt Romney, gave him two minutes, we’d stop the tape, and we’d say, “Dr. Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the Green Party, you’ve got two minutes.” And we put the same question to Rocky Anderson. I want to play an excerpt of Jill Stein’s response to moderator Jim Lehrer’s question about so-called “entitlement” programs and Social Security.

DR. JILL STEIN: It’s very important to point out that while we hear a very different narrative from Barack Obama and the Democrats than we do from Mitt Romney, with Mitt Romney’s narrative being usually harsh, scary, selfishness on steroids, and the Democratic narrative being warm and fuzzy and we’re all in this together, let’s just wait for things to get better, you know, it’s really important to look beyond the talk, to look at the walk, to look at what’s actually being proposed.

And Jeffrey Sachs at the University of Columbia has pointed out in his analysis of the budget proposals of both Obama and of Romney-Ryan—points out that they’re both aiming for essentially for the same targets. They’re both aiming for Social Security to be about 5 percent of GDP some years down the line, whether it’s four or eight years, and on Medicare, they’re both aiming for Medicare to be reduced to about 3.2 percent of GDP. So, the point is, while they have different scenarios, they both have the same targets.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. This is Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party responding to a question about healthcare reform.

ROCKY ANDERSON: Well, we’re talking here about “Obamacare” and “Romneycare.” I would call it “Insurance Companycare,” because they’re the ones that wrote it. They joined up with a very conservative foundation years ago to develop this plan, to make the American people buy this perverse product. Again, we’re the only country in the world that depends upon for-profit insurance companies for the majority of our coverage for healthcare, for those who are lucky enough to have it.

There are now over 50 million people without basic healthcare coverage in this country. The latest report indicates that there will be over 30 million people without essential healthcare coverage when “Obamacare” is fully implemented. That means misery. It means extended disease. It means extended illness and injuries. And it means the loss of lives.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. And both Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party will be joining in the debate at the town hall, not tonight at Hofstra, but when we expand the debate tomorrow on Democracy Now! in a special two-hour broadcast called “Expanding the Debate.” And we’re hoping stations will take it around the country, or you can also go to democracynow.org. Glenn, let’s just talk to you on the phone right now. Glenn Greenwald, when you listen to these candidates giving their responses, third-party candidates, your thoughts?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think you see exactly why it is that those candidates have been excluded. And I think, actually, what you’re doing in having these debates in a way that includes them is really quite innovative and important and really brilliant, because it illustrates two things. Number one is, when you have these candidates on the stage who are credible, who, as George said, represent parties who have ballot access and have been funded and recognized by lots of people, what it does is it illustrates just how mythological this idea is that the Democrats and Republicans are universes apart, that in reality they share all kinds of policy premises and, most importantly, serve exactly the same interests. Only by excluding those candidates and having the two parties focus on the tiny differences that they have and vociferously fight about them can this mythology be maintained that we have massive and real choice in this country.

The other aspect of it is, is that if you have, for example, Gary Johnson, who is the Libertarian Party candidate, and even a couple of other candidates on the right, who oftentimes are far more—far greater advocates of what progressives have long claimed to be their values—antiwar, pro-civil liberties, anti-harsh penal policies, anti-drug war—what then begins to happen, as well, is that the ideological and partisan spectrum begins to blur a great deal. Loyalties break down. Cultural identities can be subverted. And that, more than anything, is what the two parties do not want. They want both of their—their followers to think that the only way that these views can be represented is by clinging to either one of the two political parties. And introducing these third parties into the debate shows that actually the ideological spectrum is far less rigid and linear than these two parties insist on perpetuating. And that’s why they’re joined together at the hip and have a common interest in keeping this process as it is and why this collusion exists so smoothly, as George described, because they both want to keep these candidates out for the same reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: George Farah, do think that form determines content?

GEORGE FARAH: In many ways, yes. The exclusion of these viable third-party candidates from these kinds of actual presidential debate processes have the consequence of a certain ideological containment that Glenn is describing. Third parties are responsible for the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, child labor laws, unemployment compensation, Social Security, direct election of senators, public schools, public power—the list goes on and on. And when you exclude those third-party voices by structuring the debate in such an exclusionary format, you’re preventing third parties from actually breaking the bipartisan silence on critical issues, and doing exactly what Glenn is saying, which is presenting a narrow bandwidth in a wide manner, presenting the illusion that there’s extraordinary difference between the parties when in fact there’s [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader was almost arrested when he went to one of these presidential debates, when he was running for president.

GEORGE FARAH: In 2000, 64 percent of the American people wanted to see Ralph Nader in the presidential debates. He was on the ballot in the vast majority of states. But when he got a ticket to watch the debate in a viewing audience room adjacent to the debate stadium, he was escorted by police out of the actual presidential debate arena. Ultimately, he filed a lawsuit, and the Commission on Presidential Debates had to issue a formal apology and make a $25,000 donation to a pro-democracy organization.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Glenn Greenwald, you’ve also talked about the fact that the vast majority of the most consequential issues facing the United States today will not be addressed during this debate process. Can you talk about some of those issues that will be and have been excluded?

GLENN GREENWALD: Oh, yes. I mean, the list of consequential issues that will be completely ignored by these debates because the two parties agree on them is vastly longer than the list of issues that they disagree on and will be talked about. Obviously, if you look at foreign policy, you see President Obama engaging in endless war; attacking various countries with drone, killing innocent people; claiming the right to assassinate American citizens without a whiff of transparency or due process; waging an unprecedented war on whistleblowers in the United States here at home, prosecuting more than all previous presidents combined; the United States’s vast, massive penal state, where we imprison more of our fellow citizens than all other country—than any other country in the world. We have a policy of punishing people for drug usage that is racist in both its application and design, putting huge numbers of minorities into prison for no good reason. There is massive poverty in the United States, a huge and exploding income gap in between the rich and the poor, greatest in many decades. None of these issues will be remotely addressed, because there’s nothing for the two parties to say on them other than the fact that “we agree.” And it’s by excluding those issues, some of the most consequential policy debates that the United States faces, including things like union rights and climate change—the list goes on—only by ignoring them can this myth be maintained that the two parties have some vastly different philosophical approach. And it’s the inclusion of third-party candidates, who would insist on talking about those, that would give the lie to this mythology.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Glenn Greenwald, I want to turn to another issue, a foreign policy issue confronting the U.S., which is that the ACLU is at Guantánamo Bay this week to attend the pretrial hearings before a U.S. military commission in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants. The five are charged with conspiring in the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and may face the death penalty if convicted. The ACLU hopes to block a so-called “protective order” that would prevent the revelation of classified details gathered during the defendants’ CIA interrogations. ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi told the Associated Press, quote, “What we are challenging is the censorship of the defendants’ testimony based on their personal knowledge of the government’s torture and detention of them.” Glenn Greenwald, can you talk about some of the concerns around this pretrial hearing?

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure. Well, first of all, let me just say that the—this story perfectly illustrates everything that we were just talking about, because four years ago, issues like military commissions and the way in which the government cheated in these cases by denying due process and trying to ensure guilt through these joke tribunals were widely debated. These were constantly talked about, and that’s because the Democrats pretended to have a different view than the Republicans—the Democrats opposed them, the Republicans favored them—and so you had conflict and controversy over them, and therefore they were included in the debate. Four years later, you have the Democrats fully on board with all of the injustices that President Obama and his party pretended to find so objectionable, and they therefore have disappeared completely from the realm of public debate. That’s what happens when you have full consensus between the two political parties.

What is happening at Guantánamo with these commissions is really quite extraordinary, because it is an attack on every single precept of Western justice that we have long considered to be the hallmark of any decent society, things like allowing lawyers to have access to their clients, to have access to evidence, to be able to have that aired in open court. What you really have is a process designed for two things: to ensure guilt, to ensure it, no matter what the evidence is, and, more importantly, to suppress relevant evidence that’s embarrassing to the United States. So these defendants are not permitted to talk about or to introduce evidence concerning the extraordinarily oppressive, torturous treatment to which they were subjected that impacts the statements that they gave that are to be used against them, that impacts the entire notion of justice surrounding the trial. You have secret evidence. You have evidence that is from witnesses that cannot be confronted. It is an extraordinary travesty of everything that we claim to believe in, but because it’s the Democrats doing it and the Republicans fully on board, it has disappeared from public discourse.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who spoke by video—videolink at a side meeting of the U.N. General Assembly from inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he’s taken refuge. Of course, Ecuador has granted him diplomatic asylum to prevent him from being extradited to Sweden. He is concerned about being sent to Sweden to answer questions about two women who have said that he sexually abused them, because he’s concerned that Sweden will then extradite him to the United States, where he’s concerned he could potentially face charges relating to WikiLeaks. This is an excerpt of his address at the U.N.

JULIAN ASSANGE: The U.S. administration has been trying to erect a national regime of secrecy, a national regime of obfuscation, a regime where any government employee revealing sensitive information to a media organization can be sentenced to death, life imprisonment or espionage, and journalists from the media organization with them. We should not underestimate the scale of the investigation which has happened into WikiLeaks.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Glenn Greenwald, your final comment? Of course, these kinds of issues, from Guantánamo to Julian Assange—well, we don’t know. In a town hall meeting, I suppose they could be asked. But what do you think?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right, I think it’s—I can’t imagine Candy Crowley choosing a question that relates to the war on whistleblowers or Julian Assange or secrecy. But just think about that contrast. When Daniel Ellsberg was prosecuted by the Nixon administration, this was a huge story. It went to the Supreme Court. Liberals and progressives undertook his cause. He became a symbol of heroism and bravery. Here you have WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning facing exactly the same treatment, and it’s completely disappeared from public discourse. Progressives could not care less, even though, as every investigative journalist who does real work, including at major newspapers, will tell you, this has all created an incredible climate of fear that not only deters and intimidates their sources out of whistleblowing, but intimidates a lot of journalists, as well. And that’s what it’s designed to do. So you have this massive attack on transparency, this bolstering of secrecy, this undermining of investigative journalism, all concentrated within the WikiLeaks case, specifically the broader war on whistleblowers, and this, too, will be ignored, because both parties could not be more fully on board with it than if they tried.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Glenn Greenwald, for being with us, columnist and blogger for The Guardian newspaper, author of With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. We will link to your latest piece at The Guardian. And George Farah, thanks so much for joining us. Final question: the organizations that are trying to open these debates and wrest control away from this private corporation, which is the Commission on Presidential Debates?

GEORGE FARAH: We are making some actual ground. For the first time, we’ve had—we’ve convinced three of the 10 corporate sponsors that are financing the Commission on Presidential Debates to peel off. We have a—

AMY GOODMAN: YWCA pulled out?

GEORGE FARAH: YWCA, Philips Electronics and BBH advertising all pulled their support from the Commission on Presidential Debates. This is totally unprecedented. We’re resulting in the consistent process of actually making these secret contracts public. The media is beginning to really understand that this is a bipartisan corporation that doesn’t serve the interests of an electorate in which 40 percent of the voting population is independent. So, I think it’s just a matter of time, Amy, before we actually break the monopoly of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, George Farah, founder and executive director of Open Debates, author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. Again, Democracy Now! will be broadcasting live from Hofstra with our own community forum, as well as broadcasting the town hall debate. You can start tuning in at 8:00 p.m. at democracynow.org. That’s 8:00 p.m. Eastern [Daylight] Time. Or tune in to your radio or television station that is broadcasting us. And tomorrow morning, a special two-hour broadcast of Democracy Now!, where we’ll be joined by three third-party candidates. They will answer the same questions put to the major-party presidential candidates at Hofstra. So you’ll hear all. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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