Presidential Debates: Time To Change Commission Leadership

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The Swampiest Swamp: The Commission on Presidential Debates Is Out of Touch

The three co-chairs of the Commission on Presidential Debates—the nonprofit, bipartisan organization that sponsors and produces the presidential and vice presidential debates every four years during the general election—are all over the age of 70 (two of them are more than 80 years old), are all white, and all are deeply entrenched in the clubby Washington, D.C., world of former politicians, think tanks and lobbyists. 

Of the remaining 10 members on the commission’s board of directors, seven are more than 70 years old, two are in their 60s, and the youngest is 46. One is Black, one is Latina, and one is Asian.

There is little regional diversity among them.  

The people who make critical decisions about the country’s presidential debates—events that impact how Americans will vote or if they vote at all—are, for the most part, elites who are part of the D.C.-New York clique known as the swamp. (I’ve included a list of commission members at the end of this newsletter.) 

Three are former U.S. legislators. There’s a federal lobbyist. A former CEO of two major multinational corporations. A managing director of an investment bank. A managing director of a private equity fund. And a former FCC chairman-turned-partner at a major law firm. 

The makeup of this commission should come as no surprise: It’s largely how power, especially political power, has always looked. But it’s worth discussing, and in the era we’re living in, where diversity is more valued, it would be foolish not to put pressure on the commission to change. 

The clubby, swampy commission board has an effect on the quality of the presidential debates. As so many of the members are part of the D.C./New York elite, they’re likely to pick moderators who fit a certain mold. And they’re unlikely to push for a tougher debate structure. Most of these people are the type who get invited to the White House; do you think they’re going to rock the boat? Not a chance. 

Now, candidate involvement in the debates isn’t required by law, and candidates can refuse to participate in any debate sponsored and produced by the commission (like Donald Trump threatened today after the commission announced the second debate would be virtual). But don’t the American people deserve a commission that pushes for tougher rules and a tougher debate format, one that allows for more revealing responses to critical questions? 

I’ve been thinking about the lopsided makeup of the commission for the past few weeks, but recent missteps—like the disastrous first presidential debate and last night’s vice presidential debate in which moderator Susan Page had little control over the direction of the topics discussed—motivated me to write about it in today’s newsletter. 

The commission was founded in 1987 by the Democratic and Republican parties and has sponsored all general election debates held since 1988. The Democratic and Republican campaigns negotiate largely with the commission co-chairs about the debate particulars—everything from the structure (which has largely remained the same) to decorum (for example, this year’s agreement to not shake hands because of the COVID-19 pandemic). 

The commission often bills itself as nonpartisan, but in fact it is more apt to describe it  as bipartisan. While there are two registered independents on the commission, one of them, Dorothy Ridings, donates to Democratic candidates, and the other is former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, who is likely an independent due to the fact that he was a journalist. 

The commission has faced lawsuits in the past from libertarian candidates for not allowing them on the debate stage; currently, candidates must poll at 15% or higher in order to qualify. But just because a candidate can’t be on the stage doesn’t mean the commission leadership shouldn’t be diverse with respect to party affiliation and party engagement. 

Even though the debate moderators chosen by the commission are essentially a fait accompli, the commission knows it can’t select commentators or hosts from Fox News or MSNBC; there’s no way that Joe Biden would submit to having a debate moderated by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, nor would Donald Trump submit to a debate moderated by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. 

I’m not naive. I don’t expect the commission to be made up of random people picked off the street. Debates are important moments in a presidential race and for our nation, and it’s critical to have commission leaders who are well-versed in political matters. But a bunch of corporate leaders, former federal politicians and think-tank types don't even come close to representing the diversity of American voters. 

Where is the public university president? How about a labor union leader? What about a city council member or a mayor? Or someone from the tech world? What about people who are not college educated? How about someone who works in poverty alleviation or social justice? What about a small-business owner? Or a former member of the U.S. Armed Forces? What about someone who is trained as a physician or nurse? Or someone who has worked as a schoolteacher? What about a university student? 

How about more racial diversity among the board members? What about including members who live in rural areas? 

While it may be more difficult to bring about diversity among our candidates and those in the media, a change in the leadership of the Commission on Presidential Debates can be done rather quickly. 

The diversity in leadership won’t guarantee a change in debate questions; the commission has no involvement in that process. But it could change how the debates are structured and presented and which moderators are chosen. And above all else, it’s simply the right thing to do. No commission of this import should be so unbalanced in its representation. 

Commission Co-Chairs 

Frank J. Fahrenkopf, 81 years old 

Lobbyist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee

Registered Republican

Dorothy S. Ridings, 81 years old

Former president of the League of Women Voters  

Registered Independent 

Kenneth Wollack, 71 years old 

Former president of the National Democratic Institute 

Registered Democrat 

Commission Board Members 

John C. Danforth, 84 years old 

Former U.S. senator, U.N. ambassador and Missouri attorney general

Registered Republican 

Charles Gibson, 77 years old

Former ABC News anchor 

Registered Independent 

John Griffen, 60 years old 

Managing director of investment bank Allen & Co. LLC 

Registered Democrat 

Yvonne Hao, 46 years old 

Managing director of private equity fund Cove Hill Partners 

Registered Democrat 

Jane Harman, 75 years old 

Former U.S. representative  

Registered Democrat 

Antonia Hernandez, 72 years old 

President and CEO of California Community Foundation 

Registered Democrat 

The Rev. John I. Jenkins, 66 years old 

President of the University of Notre Dame

Newton N. Minow, 94 years old

Former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission

Registered Democrat 

Richard D. Parsons, 72 years old 

Former chairman of Citigroup and former CEO/chairman of TimeWarner

Registered Republican 

Olympia Snowe, 73 years old 

Former U.S. senator

Registered Republican 

Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

Scoop: ‘View’ Co-host Sunny Hostin Says ABC News Attempted to Censor Forthcoming Memoir 

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In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, there was a long overdue reckoning on race and racism in America. 

But while hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets protesting police brutality and millions more were engaged in conversations at home and work about racism, ABC News was telling Sunny Hostin, the Black and Puerto Rican co-host of “The View” and a senior correspondent and legal analyst for ABC News, that it wanted her to edit out portions of her forthcoming memoir that executives felt painted the network in a bad light. 

This is according to the foreword in Hostin’s new memoir, “I Am These Truths: A Memoir of Identity, Justice, and Living Between Worlds,” which is set to be published by HarperCollins on Sept. 22.  

In a copy of the book I obtained from a source, Hostin says of ABC’s request: “Deleting those passages didn’t feel right to me—they were all true, and they were some of the battle scars of my experience.” (Hostin doesn’t detail what exactly ABC News asked her to delete.)

“My television agent and my book agent emailed me to express confusion that a news organization would try to censor a Puerto Rican, African American woman’s story while they were covering global demonstrations demanding racial equity.” 

Hostin says that after her attorneys intervened, ABC News relented and didn’t fight her on the passages. “I didn’t want to believe that racism played a part in their revision requests—we were just dotting some i’s and crossing some t’s, right? Then, on Friday, June 12th, I got a text from a reporter.” 

That reporter was me. I texted Hostin to let her know that in a story I was publishing the next day, I would be referencing racist comments about Hostin, Robin Roberts and others that were allegedly made by Barbara Fedida, a senior ABC News executive and one of the most powerful women in media.

My story also detailed alleged efforts by Fedida to undermine those who made racial equality a priority, Hostin was one of those people who, according to my sources, advocated for more inclusion and diversity at ABC News. Multiple sources told me that Fedida had referred to Hostin as “low rent,” and my sources made it clear to me that they felt that Fedida made the comment with racist overtones. 

I don’t have a relationship with Hostin—she politely thanked me for giving her a heads up and didn’t say much else—so outside of her public comments, I never knew how she felt about my reporting. 

In her memoir, Hostin writes about how she processed what Fedida allegedly said about her: “I was floored. I felt incredibly sad, but I also felt relief. Many of the experiences I’ve had at ABC, including several described in these pages that standards and practices at first asked me to delete—well, if the allegations were true, all of the dots were connected. My suspicions that I was treated worse than my white colleagues—the fears that I tried to talk myself out of many times—maybe they were true. Had my employer, my home away from home, devalued, dismissed, and underpaid me because of my race? I had just read emails from them directing me to erase evidence of such treatment from my story. And if I'm being honest, I wasn't even angry. I was deeply, profoundly shaken and saddened.” 

Thirty-eight days after I texted Hostin and 37 days after my story was published, Fedida was fired by ABC News. 

In a memo sent to ABC News employees that I obtained, The Walt Disney Company (the parent company of ABC) said that its “investigation substantiated that Ms. Fedida did make some of the unacceptable racially insensitive comments attributed to her. It also substantiated that Ms. Fedida managed in a rough manner and, on occasion, used crass and inappropriate language.” 

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Scoop: Andrew Gillum and his wife, R. Jai Gillum, To Sit Down With Tamron Hall For First Television Interview

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Scoop: Andrew Gillum and his wife, R. Jai Gillum, To Sit Down With Tamron Hall For First Television Interview

On Monday, Tamron Hall, the host of her eponymous syndicated daytime talk show, teased a big interview for the debut of the second season of her show.

I’ve learned from two sources familiar with the interview that Hall sat down with former Tallahasse Mayor Andrew Gillum and his wife R. Jai Gillum for four hours for a wide-ranging interview which will air on the debut episode of her second season on September 14. 

This will be the first interview for Gillum or his wife since he was discovered drunk and vomiting in a Miami Beach hotel room last March along with another man who appeared to have overdosed on crystal meth. 

After rising through the political ranks for years, Gillum was the Democratic nominee for Florida Governor in 2018 but conceded the race to current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In 2019, Gillum faced ethics charges (for accepting a gift over $100 from a lobbyist) which resulted in him agreeing to pay a $5,000 fine.

In March 2020, Gillum was found drunk in a Miami Beach hotel room with a man who had a difficult time breathing after overdosing on crystal meth. Gillum was so drunk he had difficulty communicating with law enforcement. Three bags of crystal meth were also found in the room. Gillum wasn’t charged by authorities with any crimes but reporters later discovered that the man he was discovered with was a pornstar who advertised himself as a gay escort leading to questions about Gillum’s sexual orientation.

Two days after the news broke, Gillum announced that he was taking a break from public life, including his well paid gig as a political contributor for CNN, and heading into rehab for alcoholism and to treat his depression. 

In a March 2020 statement Gillum said, “This has been a wake-up call for me. Since my race for governor ended, I fell into a depression that has led to alcohol abuse. I witnessed my father suffer from alcoholism and I know the damaging effects it can have when untreated. I also know that alcoholism is often a symptom of deeper struggles.”

To find out where you can watch The Tamron Hall Show click here: https://tamronhallshow.com/all-channels/

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Scoop: Melania Trump's Comments About Trump Family Were Taped

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Scoop: Former Melania Trump Friend and Adviser Taped First Lady Disparaging Trump and His Adult Children, Sources Say 

Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former friend of Melania Trump who helped produce the 2017 presidential inauguration, taped the first lady making disparaging remarks about the president and his adult children, according to two sources. Wolkoff plans on sharing the first lady’s comments about the Trump family in her forthcoming book, “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady,” which will be published by Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books on Sept. 1. 

The news that Wolkoff is planning to reveal the first lady’s comments about the Trump family comes days after The Washington Post reported that the president’s older sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, was taped by her niece Mary Trump saying that she believed her brother had no principles and couldn’t be trusted. 

It’s unclear what exactly Wolkoff is alleging that the first lady said about the president and his adult children, but two sources familiar with the contents of “Melania and Me” confirmed that she reveals the details in her book, including harsh comments about Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter and a senior adviser. It’s also unclear if Wolkoff reveals in the book that she taped her conversations with the first lady, but I’m told by sources that the published comments are based on audiotapes.

Mary Trump, the president’s niece, based some of her book on audiotapes, but she didn’t reveal that in “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” instead sharing the tapes with The Washington Post after the publication questioned some of what she alleged in the book about the president.

A spokesperson for Simon & Schuster did not reply to my email by the time I published this edition of my newsletter.

Wolkoff was friends with the first lady for more than a decade before Trump ran for president and was director of special events at Vogue. For about a decade, she helped plan the Met Gala, the legendary fashion event held every year to benefit New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute; the gala is organized by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. 

Wolkoff had a falling out with the first lady after a series of stories revealed the inaugural committee’s excess spending. According to sources, she says in the book that she was a scapegoat for the controversy (and the subsequent federal investigation).

From the description of Wolkoff’s book

After Trump won the 2016 election, Wolkoff was recruited to help produce the 58th Presidential Inaugu­ration and to become the First Lady’s trusted advisor. Melania put Wolkoff in charge of hiring her staff, organizing her events, helping her write speeches, and creating her debut initiatives. Then it all fell apart when she was made the scapegoat for inauguration finance irregularities. Melania could have defended her innocent friend and confidant, but she stood by her man, knowing full well who was really to blame. The betrayal nearly destroyed Wolkoff.

In this candid and emotional memoir, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff takes you into Trump Tower and the White House to tell the funny, thrilling, and heartbreaking story of her intimate friendship with one of the most famous women in the world, a woman few people truly understand.

How did Melania react to the Access Hollywood tape and her husband’s affair with Stormy Daniels? Does she get along well with Ivanka? Why did she wear that jacket with “I really don’t care, do u?” printed on the back? Is Melania happy being First Lady? And what really happened with the inauguration’s funding of $107 million? Wolkoff has some ideas...

This is a developing story, check back here for updates. 

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Exclusive: ABC News - Toxicity and Racist Comments

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Good Evening

For the past six months I've been investigating a very powerful media executive you've never heard of: ABC News head of talent Barbara Fedida. What I uncovered is millions in confidential settlements, racist and inappropriate statements, over a dozen HR complaints, and a news division referred to as the most toxic in the business.

Link to my story: https://bit.ly/2zxBjqA

Many Thanks

Yashar

Twitter: @yashar

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