Every four years the men who would be president squabble over the presidential debates. What format? Which journalists should ask questions? Chairs versus lecterns?
This year, however, the debate over the debates has more consequence. The four major television news networks have allowed themselves to be sucked into the game in ways that will only weaken presidential debate and bring more disparagement to journalism.
The problem, not for the first time, is that members of the press have allowed short-term commercial self- interest to overwhelm the long-term welfare of their profession.
Rather than accept the proposal of the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which called for three debates to be broadcast widely, the Bush campaign agreed to just one commission debate and two alternatives: "Larry King Live" on CNN, and a prime-time edition of "Meet the Press with Tim Russert" on NBC.
Rival TV networks are balking at using their airwaves to broadcast a competitor's show, a reaction the Bush campaign may have counted on. If this state of affairs plays out, relatively few Americans may see the men who aspire to lead us engaged in one of the few long, face-to- face moments of this campaign that is not completely scripted.
The excluded networks will "counter-program" with game shows and sitcoms and make more money, while the network with the exclusive debate will tout its commitment to public service and hope that in the end, the publicity will boost the ratings of its news shows. The lot of them will rationalize their actions in the public's name, and all of it will be disingenuous.
The truth is the networks helped create this problem. NBC actively promoted "Meet the Press" as a debate alternative, according to one executive, and CNN lobbied for Larry King. Mr. Bush took them up on their offers. CBS lobbied for "Face the Nation" but lost out.
The networks should put citizens' interests first, and it's not too late for them to do so. To ensure that all the networks will air the debates, NBC and CNN should offer Mr. Russert and Mr. King as moderators, but promise that the debates would be independent programs and not some network product.
Such an agreement would mean that more of the public would see the two candidates discuss the issues. The networks would also not undermine the Commission on Presidential Debates, which was set up in part to prevent candidates from gaining advantage by playing journalism organizations off against one another.
Network executives have justified their attempts to gain exclusivity by claiming that they are trying to create alternatives and save the debates. That is bunk, and they know it. When network news executives start trying to one-up each other, they play into the candidates' hands. George W. Bush and Al Gore will get away with whatever advantage they can.
The stakes here are greater than they might appear. If the independent commission is replaced by a commercial free-for-all, debates in future campaigns may serve the candidates much more than the voters. Or there may be no debates, which is what happened from 1964 until 1976.
In the meantime, what we have now is another example of the press confirming the public's worst sus- picion about journalists: that we are in it only for ourselves and for the money.