It was considered groundbreaking when National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame member Gwen Ifill moderated the 2008 vice presidential debates. Now, diversity in political debate moderation has taken a step back, as the Commission on Presidential Debates has released its final list of moderators for the upcoming elections, without a minority reporter among them.
Jim Lehrer, executive editor of “PBS NewsHour,” will moderate the first presidential debate; Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent, ABC News, will moderate the vice presidential debate; Candy Crowley, chief political correspondent, CNN, will moderate the town hall-styled second presidential debate, and Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent, CBS News, will moderate the third presidential debate.
“The new formats chosen for this year’s debates are designed to focus big time blocks on major domestic and foreign topics. These journalists bring extensive experience to the job of moderating, and understand the importance of using the expanded time periods to maximum benefit,” said Michael D. McCurry, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, via a statement released on the commission’s website. “We are grateful for their willingness to moderate, and confident that the public will learn more about the candidates and the issues as a result.”
While all are top-notch journalists, the lack of diversity in the selections is particularly galling for the NABJ, which released a statement blasting the omission.
“NABJ is disappointed that the journalists chosen to participate in the presidential debates doesn’t reflect what has become the most diverse electorate in U.S. history. While we commend the selection of the first woman moderator in 20 years, we find it unacceptable that no journalists of color will be involved. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which announced the selections this week, blamed the omission on ‘debate arithmetic.’ Frankly, the math doesn’t add up,” read the NABJ’s statement. “There is no absence of qualified journalists of color, or those with experience as debate moderators … by excluding journalists of color, the commission failed to satisfy an important public interest given that racial and ethnic minorities will contribute roughly one quarter of the votes cast on Election Day.”
Sonya Ross, chairwoman of the NABJ’s Political Journalism Task Force, said “the commission had a chance to embrace the racial kaleidoscope that the American electorate is fast becoming, and chose instead to remain blind to it.”
“It is time to end this cyclical charade of treating equally deserving, equally capable journalists of color as if they are invisible, unqualified or both,” Ross said. “I would like to invite the commission, along with leading entities in political media, to join the task force in making a concerted effort to ensure a truly diverse set of presidential debate moderators for 2016.”
Reached by phone on Friday evening, NABJ President Gregory Lee Jr. clarified his organization’s position, saying the commission’s picks represent a “step back” for a country that is becoming more diversified with each passing election.
“We commend the commission on making sure the agenda of diversity is included, but to have no journalists of color, to me, is really disregarding a major portion of the country,” Lee said. “For them to ignore that — I know [the commission] stated the journalists represent all of America, but there are some questions they may not hit on as they relate to African Americans.”
Lee believes that Ifill — who has moderated a pair of debates — has the track record and experience that warrants her inclusion – especially over Crowley, who has no experience moderating a national political debate on any level.
“We have the first African-American president going up for re-election, and the demographics are shifting towards the browning of America,” Lee said, adding that he planned to meet with the commission sometime soon. “They have really done an injustice to America in making these selections — one of the moderators was retired, and they called him back.
“It’s really a surprise that Gwen didn’t get a chance to do the job. This is no discount to Crowley and the job she does at CNN, but the fact is, she hasn’t [moderated] yet.”