For shame, NBC News: Stealing the debate

A properly pissed off birdie forwarded me NBC News’ restrictions on tonight’s presidential debates, which are many and lead off with this: “internet use is not permitted.”

I think that’s ridiculous and so I sought to find out why they would do this. I called Joe Alicastro, producer of the debate for MSNBC, who was on site. I asked him why they were restricting use of the material on the internet. He twice didn’t answer and said “that’s our policy.” I said I know that’s their policy. I asked why. He would not answer.

I asked whether he thought the Amerian people had a right to this debate since it is our election. He said that “the American people have ample opportunity to view the debate on MCNBC and two North Carolina stations.”

Shameful. What makes NBC think it has the right to own the democratic discussion in this country?

Alicastro specifically said that we could blog the event — thank you — but could not use video. Hmmm. What do you have to say about that, bloggers? Fellow journalists?

Then Alicastro got pissed off himself and said that I had “not made an appointment for an interview” and “grabbed his cell phone number” (given to me by his colleagues at the company) and then he ended with “byeee” and hung up.

I have put in a call with Steve Capus, head of NBC News, with whom I served on a panel at the Radio Televison News Directors Association last week — where he and we discussed the wonders of the internet and remixing and discussing. I’ll ask Capus the same question: Why?

And let’s repeat Larry Lessig’s call for the parties to insist that the debates be open for use on the internet — but us, the people.

Here, for your amazement, are the myriad restrictions MSNBC put on what they think is their — but is truly our — debate:


(The following rules apply to all media organizations that are not part of NBC)

News organizations, including radio, network television, cable television and local television may use excerpts of “The South Carolina Democratic Candidates Debate” subject to the following restrictions (internet use is not permitted):

1. An unobstructed onscreen credit “MSNBC” must appear during each debate excerpt and remain on screen for the entire excerpt.

2. Each debate excerpt must be introduced with an audio credit to MSNBC.

3. No excerpt may air in any medium until the live debate concludes at 8:30 pm ET.

4. No more than a combined total of 2 minutes of excerpts may be chosen for use during the period from the end of the live debate (8:30 pm ET) until 1:00 am ET on Friday, April 27. After 1:00 am ET, Friday, April 27, a total of 10 minutes may be selected (including any excerpts aired before 1:00AM). The selected excerpts may air as often as desired but the total of excerpts chosen may not exceed the limits outlined.

5. No excerpts may be aired after 8:30 pm on Saturday, May 26th. Excerpts may not be archived. Any further use of excerpts is by express permission of MSNBC only.

6. All debate excerpts must be taped directly from MSNBC’s cablecast or obtained directly from MSNBC and may not be obtained from other sources, such as satellite or other forms of transmission. No portions of the live event not aired by MSNBC may be used.

A feed of MSNBC’s telecast of the debate will be provided (details below), additionally limited audio/video mults will be available on site in the media center.

(Crossposted from Prezvid)

  • This is a great post thank you. Last night I sat around with several middle of the road folks talking about the enviorment and politics and everything inbetween. The same thing kept coming up. Common sense. Our country needs to regain its common sense on the enviorment, politics, business. It starts with people like you writing a post like this. Thank you.

  • Paw

    I’m confused, Jeff. Are no other TV news outlets allowed to cover this event? Or have they chosen not to?

    Personally, I don’t view these events as traditional debates, where a topic is chosen and statements are made and rebutted. This is more like a mulit-headed press conference with time limits, but I agree that they should be available to all. Where does CSPAN fit into this equation?

  • “An unobstructed onscreen credit “MSNBC” must appear during each debate excerpt and remain on screen for the entire excerpt.”

    It doesn’t say that you can’t have the words “This rediculously small amount of content brought to you” right before the “courtesy of MSNBC” credit. ;)

    Reading through this, I’m wondering what kind of impact would be had on shows like THE DAILY SHOW if such restrictions became the norm. Rules on how long you could reair the material would not only impact the window where they could rerun an episode, it would also stymie one of their favorite tactics of continually bringing back embarassing moments to haunt certain figures.

  • Jeff, If “we” are all the media now, why don’t you and a consortium of new media sponsor a debate? I’m not being flip here, just a thought.

  • Jeff – as usual – a bullseye. it is a travesty and just shows how deep in the sand traditional media has become. Keep up the heat.

  • Guy Love

    Presidential debates are so scripted that they tend to allow no new insight into any of the candidates. Then the traditional media claims one of the candidates dominated the event (usually the candidate they are pulling for) and precede to minimize any coverage for the other candidates. The traditional meda likes this role of kingmaker and will fight tooth and nail to perserve this last vestige of their monopoly power on the new media. Today’s savvy news consumer has long grown bored with this predictable cycle of picking our next president.

  • Can you say, “YouTube?”

  • Good job for confronting them on this.

    But just for the record, these networks have been restricting debate and dialogue for decades. If they were monopolized by religious anti-socialists, perhaps your ire would have been stoked long ago.

    I’ve been away from BuzzMachine for a while, did you ever get around to condemning McCain-Feingold?

  • This is out of control. There is no justification for limiting otherwise complying use on the internet. It is an arbitrary and insulting distinction that does nothing more than increase the dominance of the Old Media, and is a hardly-cloaked defensive move against the continued efforts of the citizen journalism to bridge the gap and take back the conversation about democracy (and the news, more generally).


    Are all debates controlled by single networks in this way?

  • I have a number of thoughts on this. Here are a few:

    NBC doesn’t seem to have learned much from embedding their logo and placing restrictions on the Viriginia Tech material, while being criticized also for their own airing of the content. Perhaps the backlash wasn’t stong enough for them to learn much.

    The 800 pound gorilla in the room is Internet standards. Here’s just a few examples. Net neutrality. How many people are following this closely and how much reporting is being done? Blogging standards. Jimmy Wales, for one, I think had a good idea worth exploring, but it was quickly shot down. Digital rights management. Steve Jobs is taking action on this in the music area, but how much consensus across mediums has occurred. Now into this mix, among others, you can place this NBC Presidential debates decision. You can’t mock or otherwise comment on such a decision meaninfully without addressing at the same time this whole unresolved issue, the 800 pound gorilla, of Internet standards.

    But it’s tough, really tough, and things are evolving and changing so quickly that we pick smaller battles.

    I don’t see how we will win the smaller battles until we address the larger issues.

    Do you agree?

    Finally, the blogosphere itself can be quite clickish (although less proprietary). When we start dealing with issues of access and fairness etc., we should make sure, collectively, that we look in the mirror first.

    In fact, in life it’s sometimes the bully that cries foul the largest when punched in the nose.

    Alex Hammer
    Politics 2.0 – What’s now and what’s next!

  • @newmediajim, I’m all for a New Media-sponsored debate (I’ll put on a wig and moderate), but just don’t put it in SC. Then again, maybe we should… just for the entertainment value-added nonsense there alone. Stage it on the cannons of Ft. Moultrie. The candidates can all re-enact something. Wear a hoopskirt… keep those minds wide open, ’cause they sure don’t do much of that down there:

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  • I’m not sure why you are attacking MSNBC for their behavior. As a for-profit company, it is in their interest to maximize their revenue. On the other hand, it is curious to me that the Democratic party and candidates would agree to these kinds of terms. Did you reach out to the DNC and to the individual candidates to ask their opinions and find out why they are willing to give their time to MSNBC?

  • Well, of course, it’s ridiculous…but has everyone forgotten that ‘MSNBC” stands for ‘MICROSOFT/NBC’? One Monolithic edifice plus another does NOT equal enlightened consciousness on information sharing…so this really comes as no surprise.

    I think it’s quite possible, incidentally, that the candidates themselves, and their respective apparati, chose this particular ‘controlled’ type of venue for this sort of thing. Only idiots and backporch moths have forgotten the Kennedy/Nixon debates and what that did to Nixon. The web has already demonstrated, in spades, how easy it is for a candidate to trip and fall on his/her own sword…one of the most cogent arguments for candidates to write their OWN speeches I’ve seen in some time…far too many of them rely on staff and writers to keep them abreast of current events while they, the candidates, spend more time with — what? The latest baseball scores? Maybe we’d have more real statesmen if they started taking charge of their own campaigns again.

    So, instead of a *REAL* debate, we’re treated to 90-minute ‘powder-puff’ debates like this, where the candidates are spoon-fed pablum questions and get to occasionally whack each other with bataca-bats. Yawn city.

    My overall take on this one is: small loss.

  • Dan

    Brian Lehrer of New York public radio station WNYC said he planned to devote a full hour of his Friday program to the debate, including extensive excerpts. But if he abides by the rules, he can use only 10 minutes of excerpts.

    It will be interesting to see if Brian:
    – get special permission from MSNBC for more extensive excerpts ?
    – defies the 10 minute rule ?
    – abides by the 10 minute rule, but makes an issue of it on air ?

  • Blake

    That is shameful. If you agree, Digg this post and get the word out:

  • Interestingly, the debate is going to be carried live on the internet tonight.

    “To watch The Democratic presi­dential debate will air from 7- 8 tonight on WCBD-Channel 2, and from 7-8:30 on MSNBC, and South Carolina Educational Television, which also plans to interview most of the candidates and other party leaders. That program also will be simulcast on ETV Radio and at”

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  • James Barger

    Best idea ever!……………..Do Not Use Any of the AUDIO OR VIDEO OF MSNBC MATERIAL.

    An unobstructed onscreen credit “MSNBC” must appear during each debate excerpt and remain on screen for the entire excerpt.

    MSNBC… NBC…stand for we learn slow.

  • James Barger

    Best idea ever!……………..Do Not Use Any of the AUDIO OR VIDEO OF MSNBC MATERIAL.

  • Mary


  • Patricia

    Sadly I’m not surprised by what MSNBC is doing. The networks long ago ceased thinking of the airwaves as belonging to the public. I guess it’s a ridiculous though logical extension that they own public debate as well.

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  • Chris Newman

    I think that NBC is being a little anal about coverage of this South Carolina Democratic debate. It would serve NBC right to allow viewers to use clips online for more traffic to their sites. It would also help get the debates out there and get people interested in the election. Also, who is coming up the questions? Is there someone at NBC writing up the questions? With the rise of online debates that allow viewers to post questions, I think each debate should have user questions. I don’t like the fact that NBC is controlling everything, they should open up some more, or at least give us a better excuse.

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  • Jim Hergenrather

    What happened to “Fair Use?”

  • Harry

    >>What happened to “Fair Use?”

  • FWIW:

    They are on YouTube… for now, eh?

    Three clips:
    Response to terroris attack
    Is the War Lost

    I’m sure more will be up there…

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  • a couple ideas
    Saturate youtube et. al. with clips in which the ‘credit’ “MSNBC thinks it owns this debate” appears prominently
    Make a list of all companies who sponsor the broadcast, and let them know you are going to forego purchasing anything from them.

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  • steer

    I don’t see what the fuss is about. The full debate is available at, so anyone can see it at any time, and bloggers can link to it to their heart’s content. Where’s the burden on bloggers?

    As to whether the “public” or MSNBC owns this televised debate:

    I think it promotes democracy for TV channels to carry the debates because TV is still the most pervasive media. However, due to the low ratings of debates, advertisers don’t pay squat for time during a debate. Thus, carrying a debate in prime time costs a TV channel plenty. To ensure that MSNBC and other channels that do money-losing broadcasts of political debates, and thus promote democracy, the channels should have a right to find other ways to monetize the broadcast. One way is through the pre-roll advertisements on the internet streams of the debates.

    Again, where’s the harm if the debate has been made freely available on the Internet, as in this case?

  • I’ve been trying to get footage from HOUSE PUBLIC FLOOR DEBATES regarding abortion — just to get the issue out there…

    Guess who owns the footage from government proceedings???

    CSPAN is a PRIVATE ORGANIZATION and COPYRIGHTS their material. You are not allowed to rebroadcast, or edit and show C-Span footage.

    C’mon guys — write your congress and senate reps — this is absurd. They are very frightened with what will happen if we start editing together their footage and make them look bad. It’s time we move past the glamor and tricks of television and “the people” start taking advantage of modern communications media to further discussion debate and progress in this country.

    The Government Printing Office (GPO) has been around for years for a reason — it’s time (and I say this as a “small government” Republican) — it’s time for the feds to record and release publicly all public government proceedings.

  • On a related topic, my company operates a web site with a webcam that overlooks Fifth Avenue in New York City. One of the most popular days for this webcam is St. Patrick’s Day when people from all over the world log on to watch the St. Patricks Day parade. Several years ago we got a nasty letter from NBC saying we had to turn the webcam off during the parade. So now NBC apparently thinks they have the exclusive rights to what goes on on a public street.

  • I agree with the comments on CSPAN. This should be a publicly funded and public domain service.

    On the other hand I would like to make the point that while the American public has a right to the presidential debates, true debates between all candidates are not carried on any network or station. A debate between Democrats or Republicans or both vs. each other represents such a narrow political spectrum that I do not believe it is worth watching in the first place (alebit, I do). It is predictable rhetoric of an elite financed by special interest. In a twisted sense, these parties have bought their own airtime.

    What is needed is what you will find in most European countries: Free debates with time for all candidates from all parties on a public network.

    As long as commercial interest is intertwined with the prevalent politertainment, the American people are neither being informed nor given the opportunity to make a choice. The last thing those candidates want you to hear is discourse outside the parameters they and the network producers have hatched. Why else do you think do you never hear a really hard-hitting question?

    It’s just one of the countless ways that the public has been conspicuously disenfranchised.

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  • The only thing worse is FOX news’ treatment of the second debate. That was not even simulcast on CSPAN.

    In a democracy, this should work the other way around. For example. Say the establishment that controls the debate rules wants to axe Ron Paul from the next debate. The media should arrange a boycott amongst themselves so no one can watch the insider love fest. To have something 180 degrees from correct shows that this debate system needs redone from a clean slate.

    Some complain about too many ‘third tier’ candidates in the debates. But it was Ron Paul that made the last one worth watching. As H. Ross Perot did before. Once the third tier stop showing up, you may as well plug your ears to election coverage until the polling data comes out a week before the primary.

    Do you really think the budget would have been balanced if it were not for Perot getting into double digits in the ’92 election? It is really the third tier that makes the difference at this stage. If they broke the debates into a debate amongst the top three, and another for all the others. If you would choose to watch the top three debate? I bet you like to watch paint dry too.

  • Pat

    If not government sponsored through checkoff, or military and government sponsored by taxes, no free public debate except by FCC licensed (and paid) broadcasting without using the internet can only be described as preferential politics.

    No candidate should be elected who is willing to endorse and support “closed door” access to government, or to elections by which selective politics can be accomplished.

    Today’s technology allows free broadcast of porn, but not of politics.

    Internet is the least expensive method of providing full service access, both domestically and internationally, since surely there are many outside the nation who would also want to view the broadcasts.
    What good is public television is the nation’s most essential processes occur behind closed doors?

    It is disgraceful not to use available technology to share American government with its citizens without requiring them to buy it.

  • greenship

    Does it really matter whether it is posted on the net or not? the real matter is whether any and all american citizens have the ability to view and take part in a debate, CaptiousNut said it best. Read his commentary. Here is the reality folks, we are a representative republic NOT a democracy, so? So, don’t hedge your bets on being included on anything that our government decides to do, even if you do vote.

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