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How ‘Washington Watch with Roland Martin’ succeeds

Roland Martin is always multitasking. He is a syndicated columnist, author, CNN contributor, and senior analyst with “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” all in addition to his role as host and managing editor of the only Sunday morning talk show geared to black Americans.

The juggling appears to be paying off. Ratings for his Sunday news program, TV One’s “Washington Watch with Roland Martin” are up 35 percent and pacing 27 percent ahead of last season, according to Nielsen figures cited in a network press release.

CNN’s loss is TV One’s gain

Martin signed a development deal with CNN to create a weekend show, but the network nixed it in May 2009, Martin told me during a recent visit. In 2011, MSNBC announced it would launch its own daily news program led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a move that several black journalists blasted.

“It doesn’t make sense that Al Sharpton (who isn’t a journalist) is the only African American hosting his own [daily] show. All we want is the opportunity, but all we get to hear are excuses,” said Martin who, along with long-time friend and former TV One President and CEO Johnathan Rodgers, launched “Washington Watch” three months after CNN ditched the idea.

More black Americans get their news from television than whites or Hispanics, according to a “Trends in News Consumption” report issued in September by the Pew Research Center.

Sixty-nine percent of black consumers said they watched TV news the previous day, compared to 56 percent of whites and 43 percent of Hispanics. In 2010, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that African American cable subscriptions rose to 61 percent from 59 percent in 2009, while falling for other ethnic groups measured in the same time period.

Shows hosted by Martin and Sharpton, the report concluded, might have come at the “right time,” but black oriented TV news programs are rare and few have staying power. Viacom’s Black Entertainment Television (BET) announced this month that it would be scaling back on “Don’t Sleep,” a nightly show hosted by former CNN anchor T.J. Holmes, due to poor ratings. The show will now air once a week for one hour.

Martin’s show, however, appears to be bucking the trend.

Unlike the other news shows

“Washington Watch” reaches 142,000 homes, up from 105,000 last season. That may seem paltry compared to network Sunday news programs that reach millions of viewers each week, but Martin’s show is exceeding the performance of weekday cable news programs in terms of household share. For example, his show garnered a 0.25 household rating, compared to five-day-a-week news programs like MSNBC’s “Politics Nation” with Sharpton, which garnered a 0.7 percent share and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” which received a 0.5 percent share, according to data compiled by Cable News Ranker for June through September 2012.

In an interview with Mediabistro, Roland Martin says other Sunday shows “are stuck in a time warp. Those shows are all so locked in on what’s happening in Washington D.C., they don’t have the ability to understand or think about the rest of the country.”

“That’s huge,” said Martin, who I first met when I interned for Cox Newspapers several years ago. “If we were in 90 to 100 million homes like MSNBC, CNN and FOX, we would be doing gang busters.”

TV One reaches 57 million homes, Martin said.

“ ‘Washington Watch’ has allowed TV One to keep our loyal and expanding viewership informed and up-to-date about key issues and current affairs on a regular basis,” current President and CEO Wonya Lucas said in a press release last month. Lucas credited Martin for the “leap in viewership,” and said the show has become “an important touchstone for Black audiences” especially during this year’s election.

“I never operated like I needed to work at The Washington Post or The New York Times to do great journalism. For me it’s about the opportunity,” said Martin, who ran black newspapers in Dallas, Texas before becoming editor-in-chief of The Chicago Defender in 2004.

“My deal is, if CNN did not want to launch a weekend show, fine, we got one on TV One. The opportunity at TV One to helm my own show and to have my name on it where I get to be the host and managing editor… I get to decide who’s on it and the topics we cover. That was important to me.”

“I don’t believe that TV One is secondary to CNN,” he continued. “I’ve never believed that. It’s the same attitude I had when I ran black newspapers. I never believed that we were inferior.” (Martin mentored me when I ran a weekly newspaper in Dallas.)

Martin launched his journalism career by working at The Houston Defender. He later covered government beats at The Austin American-Statesman and The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. It was while he was assigned to the City Hall beat in Ft. Worth that a local radio station, KKDA, approached him about doing a show. “I’ve always believed in using all of my skills,” Martin said.

And that’s what he ultimately did. In addition to his other jobs, Martin is also a blogger and prolific tweeter. It was multitasking – watching television and smack-talking on Twitter – that landed him in hot water earlier this year for sending homophobic tweets. After being temporarily suspended by CNN, Martin returned to that network, but was largely absent from CNN’s recent election coverage.

Martin insists that “Washington Watch” doesn’t try to compete with the other network and cable news shows.

“We don’t do what they do,” he said. For one, Martin makes no apologies that his show caters to an audience interested in black issues. “Those other shows are locked into a formula,” he said. “You’ll see more diversity on our show. We have white panelists, we don’t lock anybody out. We just don’t want to hear from the same senator that will appear on those other shows. We want to hear from different voices.”

Producing the show, Martin said, is not without its challenges.

TV One has limited resources, so Martin shoots the show on Fridays because it is more expensive to do it live on Sundays. The show also has difficulty booking guests. “We don’t operate as though we’re less than,” he said.

Filling a gap in coverage

On any given Sunday, “Washington Watch” viewers hear from conservative pundits like Republican columnist Armstrong Williams to progressives like Sirius/XM Radio host Joe Madison. Other Sunday morning shows feature America’s governors; on Martin’s show viewers get to hear from the country’s mayors. Viewers get to hear from leading voices overlooked by other Sunday news programs.

But “Washington Watch” isn’t just a political show. Martin also covers cultural and social issues. Actor Charles S. Dutton, who was in the studio the day Poynter visited, talked with Martin about a film he produced called “The Obama Effect.” Sonya Ross, a former White House correspondent and now race, ethnicity and demographics editor in the Associated Press’ Washington, D.C., bureau, is a frequent guest on the show. Two weeks before the election, pollster Cornell Belcher talked with Martin about Obama’s ground game among African American, Latino and young voters– critical in the president’s election victory.

Perhaps if the other broadcast and cable networks had more diverse voices and experts on air during the election, as Martin did, they would have been less surprised by minority voter turnout.

“If Roland didn’t have a show, would you have seen any real analysis about minority voter participation? That’s something Roland talked about throughout this election cycle,” Ross told Poynter by phone.

“Networks are only now talking about it. Pundits are sitting around navel gazing trying to figure out why the vote went down the way it did. So perhaps the better question is: If we didn’t have Roland’s show, what would we have seen?” Ross said she would love to see the show grow. “It’s a discussion we should have daily instead of once a week.” Read more

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New website helps viewers see how news is skewed

With 60 percent of Americans saying they do not trust mainstream media to fully, accurately or fairly report the news, Colleen Bradford Krantz launched skewednewstutor.com, a project that she hopes will help the public identify why a news story seems biased.

Still in its early stages, the project launched last week and targets high school, middle school and college students, Bradford Krantz told Poynter by phone.

“Teachers have told us that these are the groups who are really bad at critical news viewing,” she said. “But it’s not just limited to young viewers. A lot of people think that most journalists are out to slant news.”

The site focuses on video for now. “That’s what young people are using more and more,” Bradford Krantz said.

The project compares three versions of a news story: One neutral news report followed by two deliberately slanted versions. One of the two slanted versions uses pop-up balloons to show how seemingly unimportant changes — in background music, in how a source is identified — can affect the message.

Even changes in tone of voice and the use of certain phrases can demonstrate bias, Bradford Krantz said. In the skewed versions of the current video collection posted on YouTube, users see how changes in camera angles even affect what viewers perceive.

For example, a story about animal housing shows how a camera angle of a less crowded shot can lead to a positive emotional connection to the story, while a more crowded shot or one featuring a sick cow instead of a healthy one can lead to a negative feeling. Similarly, a bright yellow background may lead viewers to perceive a news report positively, while a gray, gloomy background can make a story feel negative. A more ominous tone of voice, or a narration backed by moody music, can make a story seem negative, compared to a brighter tone of voice and livelier music.

A former reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Des Moines Register as well as a documentary filmmaker, Bradford Krantz used to argue that much of the public’s claims of bias were exaggerated or tied to misunderstanding how newsrooms work. While careful journalists outnumber the careless ones, she now acknowledges that more and more news sources provide a mix of news and opinion without labeling the reports as commentary.

The skewed news tutorial also trains viewers on how to call into newsrooms to convey their concerns. Good news managers will listen, Bradford Krantz said.

The project contains a tip sheet that journalists can use to identify triggers, such as upbringing, that may influence how they report or write about a topic. This part of the project also asks journalists how they plan to overcome possible influences that may skew their reports.

“This might be controversial,” Bradford Krantz explains. “Backgrounds can be a positive thing, but they can also be problematic when it comes to who journalists choose to be in a story, for example. What I tell people about the Journalism Bias Sheet is that it provides transparency that will be a reassurance to the public if nothing else.”

In addition to posting videos every few months, Bradford Krantz plans to develop a mobile app. Read more

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Romney charges journalists to cover tonight’s party, Obama gives journalists free access

Journalists covering Mitt Romney’s election night party will have to pay for the privilege.

During national conventions, campaigns typically charge news organizations for use of electricity and Internet access, but instituting what is essentially a cover charge just for journalists to be admitted into the parties is a new move, reports Robert Rizzuto for MassLive.com.

Romney will hold his election night party at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

The Romney campaign cover charge appears to be hitting student journalists particularly hard, but is also likely to shut-out independent bloggers and smaller news organizations. Read more

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Why Black Enterprise was given an exclusive interview with Mitt Romney

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not reach out to black media until August when senior campaign adviser Tara Wall called and offered Black Enterprise an exclusive interview with the candidate. The interview made Black Enterprise the only black media outlet that Romney spoke with on the record, said April D. Ryan, White House Correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief for American Urban Radio Networks.

Oprah Winfrey interviewed Romney. And he spoke off-the-record to several members of the black press. But he broke promises, including to Ryan, that he would later speak with them on-the-record, she said. Read more

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SC jail stops publishing mug shots

The StateFox 5 AtlantaWLTX
The Richland County Jail in South Carolina has stopped publishing mug shot arrest photos after learning that a website was posting the photos and then charging $400 to have the images removed.

Some of those having to pay the hefty fee were clients of Seth Rose, a Richland County Councilman and local defense attorney.

“I just think there are ethical concerns,” Rose told WLTX in Columbia, South Carolina. “I think this should be against the law.” Read more

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As 4 stations cancel his show, is Tavis Smiley’s advocacy journalism too political for public radio?

One week after Tavis Smiley was yanked off the air by Chicago Public Media for being too much of an advocate, the veteran broadcaster slammed President Barack Obama in a New York Times story published over the weekend.

“Tragically, it seems the president feels boxed in by his blackness. It has, at times, been painful to watch this particular president’s calibrated, cautious and sometimes callous treatment of his most loyal constituency,” Smiley told Jodi Kantor of the Times by email. “African Americans will have lost ground in the Obama era.”

That’s the kind of talk that a week ago led Torey Malatia, President and CEO of Chicago Public Media to cancel “Smiley & West,” a public affairs show hosted by Smiley and Princeton Professor Cornel West. That’s also the kind of talk most journalists shy away from; but an unapologetic Smiley tells Poynter in a phone interview that he’s an advocate journalist who knows when to advocate on issues and when to interrogate on them. He does either/or – or both – depending on the platform.

Smiley says, for example, that he does not advocate for things he believes in on his public television show, his “Tavis Smiley Show” from Public Radio International or through his foundation, which seeks to mentor and develop youth; but he does advocate in his best selling books, in speeches and on the other public radio program he hosts with West.

The advocate journalist

“I am not Brian Williams, Bob Schieffer, Scott Pelley, or Diane Sawyer. I am not trying to be a journalist,” said Smiley, who was born to a single mother in Gulfport, Miss.

“If people want to use the word journalist with me in the title, they have to call me an advocacy journalist in the tradition of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Monroe Trotter. What I try to do is raise issues that unsettle people, unhouse people, that challenge folks to re-examine their assumptions, expand their inventory of ideas and give them a new way of seeing the world, a new prism from which to look.

“I don’t think that anybody who has followed my work is surprised by the fact that advocacy matters to me. I don’t think that advocacy is a spectator sport. You have to get off the sideline and get involved in the game,” he continued. “I’ve always been that way. And because I wear so many hats, there are spaces and places where I don’t advocate, but there are other spaces and places where I do. So some spaces are for interrogation, some spaces are for advocacy and I don’t mix the two.”

Smiley bristled when asked whether audience members might get confused about when he’s advocating and when he’s interrogating. “I think the exact opposite,” he said. “It provides a level of clarity for the listener and for the viewer. They know what they’re watching and they know what they’re listening to.”

“At some point those who steward public media must stop insulting those who support public media. People are not stupid. They know what they’re watching, they know what they’re listening to and they can tune in or tune out. But they know spin when they hear spin, and they know truth when they hear truth. And at some point, if you’re lying, it’s going to eventually catch up with you. Ask Lance Armstrong. People aren’t confused about what they’re watching.

Earlier this year Smiley and West launched a nationwide poverty tour to coincide with the election. The two have traveled from city to city talking about the plight of the poor, promoting their book, “The Rich and The Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto” and lambasting the presidential candidates, especially Obama, for not directly addressing the issue.

“You listen to an hour of ‘Smiley & West’ and you listen to ‘The Tavis Smiley Show,’ you will hear the difference in the programs. And that’s okay because people have different tastes. I’m offering them a variety of things to watch and listen to. The audience isn’t confused about that. I just don’t like when we insult the intellect of the audience,” he said.

In response to email complaints about the cancellation, WBEZ’s Malatia compared Smiley’s brand of opinion journalism to that of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, which Smiley took as an insult and responded to via an open letter, defending his work.

“At least with me, you know where I stand. What I don’t like are persons who are sitting in news chairs who are supposed to be objective, but you can hear the slant in the storytelling, you can hear the slant in the snarkiness in the delivery, you can hear the slant when the commentary creeps in,” Smiley told Poynter. “With me, one doesn’t have to do that.”

Why WBEZ canceled

It’s not that there are issues too political for Smiley to tackle in his various forums, the treatment is what differs for him. “The treatment of those issues is important but different depending on the forum,” he said via email. “In one instance I will offer my personal commentary about a said issue (“Smiley & West”); in another forum (PBS show or “The Tavis Smiley Show” on PRI) my job is to interrogate the issue and interrogate the guest on whatever issue they’re pushing.”

Chicago Public Media accused “Smiley & West” of being too one-sided, but Smiley says “our program is as democratic as anything on the radio. We want to give people a chance to respond to us. We don’t believe that we have a monopoly on the truth.”

Smiley and West pitched their radio show to public radio executives two years ago as something different from the staid fare the stations usually offer; the show would be all opinion. The two men even developed an online component called the Speak Out Network, a place for listeners to voice their disagreement or agreement with issues discussed on the show via voice mail, text messages, or blog posts.

“The Tavis Smiley Show” (with just Smiley) airs on 85 stations nationwide, while “Smiley & West” airs on 72 stations. “Smiley & West” is being marketed as the second hour of “The Tavis Smiley Show” so that stations can test it out, a PRI spokeswoman told Poynter by phone. Smiley’s public television show airs in more than 200 markets, about 97 percent of PBS stations, a spokesman said.

Both Smiley and a spokesman for WBEZ agree that the show he hosts with Professor West is an experiment for public radio that might not work in all markets.

With its large ethnic population, Smiley just doesn’t believe Chicago is one of those markets.

Daniel Ash, Vice President of Strategic Communications for Chicago Public Media, told Poynter that while Smiley told the public media community about his intentions with the show, “we’ve always felt that it didn’t offer the type of inclusiveness that we would want our programming to reflect.”

Ash and CEO Malatia expressed concern about audience decline and said that the “style of programming wasn’t consistent with our overall approach to programming and service to the community.” Ash added that while he’s not saying the program isn’t valuable, “it just didn’t meet the criteria we set for WBEZ.”

The station received more public reaction when it cancelled its nighttime jazz music programming, Ash said. But more media feedback concerning the cancellation of Smiley’s show, which Ash attributes largely to the deficit of people of color who host public media programs, media programs period.

“When you choose to cancel one of the few shows out there with a person of color, then you’re going to hear about it,” added Ash. Smiley became the first African American to host a show on National Public Radio in 2002. He left abruptly in 2004, questioning NPR’s commitment to reaching diverse audiences. Smiley then went to work for Public Radio International.

WBEZ is not the first to unceremoniously dump Smiley due to his outspoken views, or look sideways at him when he’s come close to crossing the line.

In 2008, he parted company with “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” which helped make him a national household name. Smiley, who had been with the show since 1996, said he was leaving to explore other opportunities, but Joyner told listeners it was because Smiley couldn’t “take the heat” for criticizing President Obama.

In 2009, historically black Texas Southern University stripped Smiley’s name from its school of communication. School officials said it was because the TV and radio host had not fully met financial promises to the university; Smiley said the offer to name the school after him pre-dated his pledge to help the school raise money. He said the economy had hurt him financially just as it had hurt others, but that he still planned to raise money for the school before his name was removed.

In 2010, PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, publicly chastised Smiley for going off course on his television show “in a way that was guaranteed to be inflammatory” in an interview with a Somali-born author and activist who warned about extremist and violent aspects of the Muslim faith.

Earlier this year Smiley, who previously earned a hefty sum for speaking engagements, was booted from a luncheon honoring Martin Luther King after he said the president had not done enough for the black community.

Prior to the 2008 election, Obama had appeared on Smiley’s show numerous times. But during the 2008 presidential primary, then-candidate Obama rejected the host’s invitation to speak at the then-annual State of the Black Union, an event Smiley held to discuss issues impacting black Americans. Hillary Clinton attended the event, which aired on C-SPAN.

Since criticizing the president, Smiley hasn’t gotten an invite to the White House, let alone a personal interview with the president, something Smiley has publicly complained about.

Writing for Politico, Dylan Byers reported that Smiley suggested “the president doesn’t like being critiqued, ‘especially from black folks.’”

Smiley believes the WBEZ cancellation is also politically motivated. “For people to pop up now and say that the show is too opinionated, that it has a certain slant to it… My response in a word is, ‘Duh.’ We told you that two years ago,” said Smiley, who lives in Los Angeles. “Six or seven weeks before election day in Chicago, we got dropped. Now you read between the lines. Now I was born at night but it wasn’t last night.”

WBEZ is the fourth radio station to drop “Smiley & West” in as many weeks. That may be the nature of the business, and Smiley adds that within 24 hours of the WBEZ cancellation, two other public radio stations in Chicago contacted him about picking up the show.

“We’ll be back on the air in Chicago,” Smiley said confidently. “PBS has seen death threats and bomb threats because of me and because of things we discuss on the show. By the same token, they see the ratings every day. We bring people on who otherwise wouldn’t get on TV. PRI and PBS know who I am. PBS and PRI have always stood by me because they know me and they know my integrity.” Read more

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Five things we’re watching for in tonight’s Vice Presidential debate

Normally, the vice presidential debate hardly matters, but in light of the close polls following last week’s debate between the two presidential candidates, the spotlight will likely be brighter than usual on Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Rep. Paul Ryan when the two square off at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky tonight.

Here are five things we’ll be watching for in tonight’s vice presidential debate.

1. It’s the questions, stupid. Last week moderator Jim Lehrer said he ran out of time before he could ask about several issues important to Americans. This week, ABC News Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz will moderate the 90-minute vice presidential debate that will cover international and domestic policies. It will be divided into nine segments of about 10 minutes each. Raddatz will ask an opening question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Raddatz will use the remaining time to further probe the candidates’ positions on the topics.

Raddatz took to Twitter last month to solicit questions from her followers; leaders representing Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and black journalism associations also sent questions to Raddatz or to the Commission on Presidential Debates to be forwarded to the moderator. The National Association of Black Journalists submitted the same 15 questions on domestic policy that they sent to Lehrer, plus eight more questions on foreign policy, according to Sonya Ross, chair of the organization’s Political Journalism Task Force.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent queries about women’s reproductive rights as well as other topics and then asked supporters to press Raddatz to ask them during the debate. Raddatz declined to respond to Poynter on whether she was in receipt of all these questions and whether she would ask them.

2. How the candidates frame their answers. While Lehrer, a longtime anchor of PBS and veteran moderator, was roundly criticized by both liberals and conservatives for his performance, Romney and Obama did not always do their job in answering the few questions the PBS executive editor and veteran moderator did ask. Christopher Medina, the director of the Tolson/Washington Forensic Society at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas – which inspired the critically acclaimed 2007 movie, “The Great Debaters” starring Denzel Washington – said the moderator has very little to do with a candidate getting real with the audience.

“It’s how the candidates frame their responses to the questions themselves,” he said. “The questions typically should not be leading questions because then a moderator is not doing their job if they are leading a candidate one way or the other. Really a moderator wants to ask very open-ended questions so that they can understand a candidate’s true response.”

3. Practice. Practice. Practice. Medina said getting the candidates to “be real” is actually more about practice. “Connecting with an audience is a debater’s number one job,” Medina told Poynter in a telephone interview. “The audience has to understand what you’re trying to convey to them. If you don’t do that, then you will lose the debate much like President Obama did. He did not connect with the audience whatsoever. Mitt Romney did a much better job with telling stories, which connects with an audience. With the vice presidential debate, what the candidates will have to do is practice, practice, practice connecting with an audience.”

4. Keeping it orderly. While the moderator may have little to do with how the candidates connect with the audience and answer questions, it is incumbent upon him or her to keep order. The moderator got rolled over by the candidates last week and that can’t happen in the other debates, Medina said.

“Lehrer was supposed to keep time and keep the candidates in check in terms of the time it took them to respond. He did not do that, and because he did not do that the candidates started becoming more and more aggressive because they knew if they took more time that they would be allowed to do that. Right off the bat from the first two questions when they took more time than they were allotted, the moderator did nothing,” Medina said. “The candidates felt they could go ahead and take as much time as they wanted and steamrolled the moderator.”

The pressure is on for Raddatz and the other moderators to maintain order.

5. Higher viewership. Last week’s presidential debate had a viewership of about 67.2 million, according to Nielsen ratings. Four years ago, Nielsen reported a viewership of 69.9 million for the vice presidential debate between Biden and Republican nominee Sarah Palin. More viewers are expected to watch the vice presidential candidates go head-to-head tonight, according to “The Prospector,” the student newspaper at The University of Texas-El Paso.

Medina expects this vice presidential debate to be more highly watched because of the attention the election is getting. And David Jackson of USA Today reminds readers vice presidential debates usually produce the most memorable moments. Jackson counts such catch-phrases as Bob Dole’s 1976 comment about ‘Democrat Wars,’ ‘Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,’ uttered by then-Senator Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, and Admiral James Stockdale’s opening ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ in 1992.

Americans might not vote based on the vice presidential candidates, but they — and journalists — may tune into this debate for the sheer entertainment value alone. Read more

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Lehrer: ‘Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way’

The Democratic co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates called criticism of moderator Jim Lehrer’s performance “unfair.” More than 58 million viewers were watching last night’s debate between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, according to the overnight ratings.

“There’s a lot of beating up on Jim Lehrer today and I think there ought to be a little time to let things settle in a little bit before we make any summary judgment,” Mike McCurry told Poynter by phone while on a plane to Austin, Texas. Read more

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A podium stands on stage as a worker cleans lint off the background for a debate at the University of Denver Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, in Denver. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will hold their first debate Wednesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

5 things you need to know about the first presidential debate

President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will meet tonight for the first time to go head-to-head over domestic policy issues. Moderating his 12th nationally televised presidential debate, PBS Executive Editor Jim Lehrer selected the topics to be covered, which include the economy, health care, the role of government and governing. The debate will take place from 9-10:30 p.m. Eastern Time at the University of Denver in Colorado.

Here are five more things you will need to know about tonight’s debate:

1. Format. The first debate will be divided into six, 15-minute segments. Lehrer will open each segment with a question, after which each candidate will have two minutes to respond. Lehrer will use the balance of the remaining time in the segment to further discuss the topic.

2. Social media as a fact-checking stream. More and more viewers now simultaneously turn to their televisions and computers for live event coverage; the debates will be no exception. Many voters will watch the debates on TV per usual, but will look to Twitter for fact-checking. As in 2008, journalists at the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact will listen closely to the candidates for lines they have used before and quickly tweet links to fact-checks already written about those claims. The entire staff will work to post fact-checks to new claims the candidates make during the debate.

A podium stands on stage as a worker cleans lint off the background for the first presidential debate of 2012, held at the University of Denver on Tuesday, Oct. 2.  (David Goldman/AP)

“The debates are like the play-offs for us,” Editor Bill Adair told Poynter by telephone. “We will have a Twitter widget on the website so people can follow our fact-checks live. We will put up links very quickly to fact-checks we’ve already done, and by midnight or 1 a.m. we should have several more fact-checks published on the site. We’re going to be working into the wee hours and continue publishing new truth-o-meter items and then finish off on Thursday morning. This is really a big event for us and we’re going to be covering it in lots of ways.”

3. TV is still king, but… All three broadcast networks and the major cable news channels will air the debate live, according to schedules on their websites. But a growing number of voters will tune into the debates digitally. CNN.com will live-stream the debate on its website and on its mobile apps for iPhone and iPad.

And, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced last week a new digital initiative between AOL, Google’s YouTube and Yahoo. Called “The Voice Of…,” the initiative will feature the live debates and archival debate footage. The digital media companies “are collaborating to showcase an experience that will enhance every citizen’s ability to further their education on the issues and add a voice to the national conversation,” a press release states. Politico reports that Vice President Joe Biden will also host a livestream conversation with supporters across the country tonight.

4. Post-debate analysis. Young voters may not catch PBS or cable news analysis tonight, but they will likely tune in tomorrow to hear comedic commentary on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” Unlike cable news programming, these two shows are actually growing audience and attracting younger viewers too.

Comedy Central is running ads challenging the trustworthiness of cable news channels and touting itself as a go-to place for election news. Stewart won’t just comment on the presidential contest, he will also participate by debating Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly Oct. 6. That debate will also be live-streamed. Guardian reporter, Adam Gabbatt, will with a team of four others to provide a light alternative to serious news coverage by dropping animated GIFs onto Tumblr’s election blog as well as The Guardian’s live blog, reports Andrew Beaujon.

5.  Political Parties. You will likely find journalists, political junkies, and those who want to be around them at debate-watching parties — similar to Super Bowl Parties, only bluer and redder. The Obama campaign says it will host 3,200 viewing parties across the country, while team Romney parties appear to be taking place in more suburban areas in key swing states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, Warren Rojas reported in Roll Call. Those left behind in Washington, D.C., who are not necessarily interested in ‘party’ partisanship, can check out more neutral revelries at the National Press Club. Everyone is welcome in the Bloomberg Room, while working journalists are likely to continue discussions of the debate over drinks in the members-only Truman Lounge. Read more

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Presidential Debate Commission co-chair blames TV networks for lack of diversity among moderators

During Wednesday’s presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer will have the same freedoms male moderators have enjoyed since the modern day presidential debates began more than two decades ago – asking their own questions – while Candy Crowley, the second woman in 20 years to moderate a presidential debate, will face the same limitations her predecessor Carole Simpson faced in 1992: The town hall debate format where voters ask the questions, not the moderators.

“She’ll be the girl with the microphone,” said Simpson, the former ABC News anchor who was handpicked by the Commission on Presidential Debates — the bipartisan body that plans the when, where and how of the events — to moderate the debate between George H. W. Bush, Ross Perot and Bill Clinton.

Frank Fahrenkopf, President and CEO of the American Gaming Association, as well as the Republican co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, remembers personally reaching out to Simpson to ask her to moderate the 1992 debate. He blames television news networks for the lack of progress in diversity among eligible debate moderators.

“The television industry has not done a very good job with diversity with regard to really having women, or blacks or Hispanics in leading situations,” Fahrenkopf told Poynter via telephone.

“So, we try to make sure that we have women represented… 2008 and 2004 had a black represented [when PBS’ Gwen Ifill moderated vice presidential debates]. We have not had a Hispanic yet; we looked very hard to try to find a Hispanic that met the qualifications. I know that we disappointed the Hispanic community, but you can only do so much of this. I mean, should there be a Jewish moderator? Should there be an Arabic moderator? You can only do so much of this, and so we just do our best.”

When identifying moderators, Fahrenkopf said the commission looks primarily to television journalists who are experienced in moderating debates and well-versed in the policies and issues confronting the country; someone who can take direction from a third party talking to them through an earpiece, but at the same time can keep candidates on task; someone who is comfortable in front of millions of viewers; and most importantly, someone who is fair, balanced and does not have an ego.

“In other words, a journalist who knows it’s not about them, but the candidates and the public,” Fahrenkopf said. “We view this, and we always have since the commission was formed back in 1987, as an educational function. Our role and goal is to educate the public.”

The history of presidential debates

There have been debates over the presidential debates, almost since the very first debate took place in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. The debate commission formed in 1987 to tamp down on controversies that had plagued presidential debates in previous decades.

For instance, Fahrenkopf said Richard Nixon so disliked his debate with John F. Kennedy in1960 that Nixon spurned future attempts to organize debates in 1968 and 1972, therefore no debates took place. Talk of forming a commission to handle the debates, and eliminate some of the politicization from the process, began in 1985, but didn’t take hold until three years later, he added. Even that didn’t work.

Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan are among those who have since sued the commission, unsuccessfully and at different times, because they all felt slighted when the commission did not allow them to participate in debates because they failed to meet the criteria for inclusion.

After weeks of sparring, both the Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigns agreed on one thing in 2000: They each wanted to dictate to the commission how the debates would take place, even down to who would and would not be allowed to moderate. The commission fought the campaigns’ efforts. Fahrenkopf said 2008 was the first presidential election year the commission wasn’t sued. Last week, however, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson unsuccessfully sued the commission to be included in the debate.

The recent history of debate moderators

When Lehrer, Crowley and CBS’ Bob Schieffer were announced as moderators, Simpson was reminded of her role in debate history.

“They got a two-for with me: A minority and a woman,” Simpson told Poynter by telephone. “They told me they wanted – this had never been tried before — an Oprah style debate where the moderator would go out into the audience and people would ask their questions. I was like the girl with the microphone. My role was to follow-up to ensure the voters’ questions were answered. I had no control over who was chosen to ask a question, I was told by a director in my ear who to allow to ask a question. I had no opportunity to ask my own questions, all I did was hold the microphone.”

Despite the restrictions, Simpson was able to make her mark. When an African American woman in the audience asked the candidates how the national debt at the time affected them personally, Simpson clarified that the questioner meant the recession.

“It turned the tide against George H.W. Bush. He didn’t get the fact that people were really hurting. Bill Clinton then walked up to the woman and said the famous, ‘I feel your pain.’ Bush was also hurt by looking at his watch, three times, during the debate,” remembers Simpson, who currently teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston and whose book, “NewsLady,was recently re-released.

“The next day after the debate, I was accused by Rush Limbaugh of giving the debate to Clinton. I received death threats. George Bush was the one that I liked, and the one I had spent most of my time with.”

Had it been left up to TV networks to decide on moderators, Simpson said she would have never been selected. In fact, on the eve of the ’92 debate, ABC executives wondered aloud whether she — a seasoned journalist — would be able to handle the responsibility and if she would embarrass the network, a painful chapter she discusses at length in her book.

“…I feel that they are marginalizing women again because she [Crowley] won’t have the same role as the men have, which is more powerful,” said Simpson, turning the conversation back to the 2012 debate. “She doesn’t need to be the girl holding the microphone. She’s tough as nails and she knows politics inside out.”

Women were not the only people pushing for diversity and equal opportunity. Hispanic and black advocacy groups balked at the lack of ethnic diversity among this year’s moderators.

After outcry from Latino groups, the Spanish language television network Univision hosted separate forums for President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney late last month.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons and The National Association of Black Journalists complained about there not being a black moderator. The groups suggested Ifill as both experienced and qualified to moderate; NABJ even suggested bringing back Simpson. The NAACP requested a fourth debate be added to the schedule, but a spokesman said that wasn’t going to happen. Representatives from both the NAACP and NABJ said there had not been any response to separate attempts to reach out to the commission.

Reached at his day job, Fahrenkopf said supporters of Gary Johnson’s candidacy are slamming the commission’s phone system. “They’ve shut it down, that’s why they [NAACP and NABJ] haven’t heard from anybody over there,” he said.

NABJ sent 15 questions to the commission that moderators might want to ask Obama and Romney during one of the upcoming debates. The questions cover a range of topics from unemployment (which for black Americans is double that of white Americans), to U.S. policy toward Asia and America’s big demographic shift.

Any questions submitted by outside groups are forwarded directly to the moderators, Fahrenkopf said.

Mike McCurry, Democratic Co-Chair of the Debate Commission and former Press Secretary for President Clinton, said he has the questions and will pass them along to the moderators, including Lehrer.

McCurry, now a partner at D.C. lobbying firm Public Strategies, also said NABJ and the commission have agreed to enter an ongoing dialogue to help identify experienced journalists of color who can moderate the 2016 debate and beyond.

Why diversity matters

Since Simpson moderated the debate in 1992, the executive branch of government — the president and his Cabinet — has become more diverse than the ranks of the moderators, said Sonya Ross, Race and Ethnicity Editor in the Associated Press Washington Bureau and Chairwoman of NABJ’s Political Journalism Task Force.

Democrats worry a lower enthusiasm among black, Hispanic and young voters for Obama could hurt him in this election, while Romney doesn’t poll at all among black voters and gets only scant support from Hispanics.

“Regardless of who gets elected, the next president will preside over the most rapid colorization of America than any other president before him,” Ross said by phone. “Somebody’s got to ask these men to explain their vision for a multicultural America because that’s what they will be dealing with.”

Related: “Presidential Debates: Why the Little Things Matter” (Wall Street Journal) | Gwen Ifill debunks 5 myths about presidential debates (Washington Post) | “On Being the Lady with the Microphone” (The Atlantic) | Former NBC VP on how debates should change (Nieman Lab) Read more

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