Teen who petitioned for female debate moderator: ‘No one — man or woman — could have done it better’

I don’t like to be told there’s something I can’t do. To be specific, I don’t like to be told there’s something I can’t do because I’m a girl.

Whether they meant to or not, and I’d like to think that they didn’t, that’s pretty much what the Commission on Presidential Debates has been indirectly telling every woman in the United States for 20 years by only choosing male presidential debate moderators for the past four elections. The last 12 debate moderators were all men. Twenty years went by without a woman on that stage, and that makes it a trend that started before I was even born.

I don’t understand why women were being passed by for this position repeatedly for 20 years when there has been such an abundance of great female journalists to do the job, but they were, and the message was clear. In my life, I never saw a woman on that stage acting as an authority over the two most potentially powerful men in America. That is, until Tuesday night.

Moderator Candy Crowley talks to the audience at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., before the second presidential debate. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

I think that Candy Crowley did a fantastic job in the last presidential debate, but that’s not what I will remember when I look back on the 2012 presidential debates between Obama and Romney. What I will remember is the fact that she was up there.

Yes, I hope to one day live in a time when the gender of a journalist or really anyone in the professional world is irrelevant because gender equality has already been achieved and is a total non-issue. However, until that day comes we can’t ignore the disparity between the treatment of the sexes in politics and media, because if we do then we won’t be able to fix it. And fix it we must.

That’s what my friends Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis and I set out to do this past summer. When we noticed that there hadn’t been a female moderator in 20 years, we were shocked and disappointed, and we wanted to close that gap immediately. We petitioned the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Obama and Rommey campaigns to choose at least one woman to moderate one of the presidential debates and gathered a total of about 180,000 signatures on our two petitions combined.

New Jersey teens Sammi Siegel (left), Emma Axelrod (center) and Elena Tsemberis (right) hoped to deliver boxes of petitions to the Commission on Presidential Debates in Washington, D.C., this past July. They were turned away. (Photo courtesy: Change.org).

On August 15, the Commission released the names of the moderators and we discovered that not only had CNN’s Candy Crowley been chosen to moderate last night’s presidential debate, but ABC’s Martha Raddatz was asked to moderate the vice presidential debate as well. That makes 2012 the first year in American history with women making up 50 percent of the four total debate moderators.

This was thrilling on so many levels. It’s unclear how much, if any, of the CPD’s decision can be attributed to the work Sammi, Elena and I put into raising awareness of the need for more gender equality on the debate floor (they refused to meet with us and refused our petitions when we tried to deliver them), but the change we wanted had still been made. That’s what matters to us.

Crowley was a great choice and I loved her follow-ups and thought she did a sound job of keeping the candidates under control, especially since we all know from watching Jim Lehrer’s performance as moderator in the first debate that it’s not the easiest job.

At the beginning of the debate, Crowley said that her goal was “to give the conversation direction and get the questions answered.” No one — man or woman — could have done it better.

Crowley moderated the second presidential debate. The final debate between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney will be moderated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer.

But what I will take away from watching that debate is the visual of seeing her up there, just as strong as the two men vying to be the most powerful person in the United States, and one of the most powerful people in the world.

She was in a position of authority over them, and she held that authority well. I doubt it’s easy to tell the President of the United States that his time is up and would he please stop talking. I like to picture women and girls across the country, and around the world, watching the debates and being able to visualize themselves in that sort of position of power and authority more easily than they ever could before. It’s all about the equal representation.

My friends at the Women’s Media Center like to say when discussing the importance of more positive female role models in the media: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” On Tuesday, for the first time in 20 years, Candy Crowley gave us all something to see.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/naurene Naurene Donelly Antoniotti

    I agree with clayton burns – what I will remember is how she so sided with Obama – incorrectly – and he did not declare Benghazi an act of terrorism – he was discussing acts of terrorism. SHe had absolutely no business doing that as a moderator. Partisanship on the part of the moderator had no place in the debate, especially a comment taken totally out of context.

  • Anonymous

    No, it was in the context of Benghazi, which he mentioned in his next sentence. Furthermore, the intelligence still points to this being a spontaneous (not pre-planned) terror attack motivated by revenge for the youtube video.

  • http://www.facebook.com/em.ly.ja Emily Jameson Dubow

    Emma! Thank you for recognizing this discrepancy and then determining to do something about it. The world needs more young women with initiative like you have. You are off to a great start!

  • Clayton Burns

    The worldscam post is offensive. It should have been deleted by now. You should reveal your identity now, worldscam, so that your employer can choose whether to fire you, if you indeed are working.
    Man behind ‘Jailbait’ posts exposed, loses job

    By David Fitzpatrick and Drew Griffin, CNN Investigations Unitupdated 5:47 PM EDT, Thu October 18, 2012

  • Clayton Burns

    worldscam: You are a coward. Your post should have been deleted.
    Anyone has the right to express an opinion, as long as it is not sexist and irrational and hateful.
    You need to take an IQ test.

  • Clayton Burns

    worldscam: You are a coward. Your post should have been deleted.
    Anyone has the right to express an opinion, as long as it is not sexist and irrational and hateful.
    You need to take an IQ test.

  • http://www.facebook.com/louis.robbins.1 Louis Robbins

    No he didn’t.
    He said “acts of terror” and it was in context about 9/11/2001 and in general.
    Even if you say that he did, why then did he go on to lie for two weeks on Letterman, The view, and at the UN blaming it on a riot and a video on youtube?
    You can’t spin this, either way he lied and the administration can do nothing to change that now.
    IMHO you know he lied but could care less, Independents are not going to accept a lie.

  • Anonymous

    This CNN plant was an absolute disgrace. She interrupted Romney 28 times.. Obama 9 times. She allowed for Obama to speak ad nauseum (more like NAUSEOUSLY) for 4 minutes longer while the rude, corrupt, socialist PIG FACE idiot disgrace of a President cried that he wasn’t getting enough time. Gimme a break! CNN should have fired this BITCH instantly. PATHETIC by a long shot!

  • Anonymous

    You and Jennifer Rubin are wrong on the Libya question. Obama said the day after the attack that it was an act of terror. That’s in the record, that’s a fact, and it can’t be changed no matter how many times you lie. Obama and Candy Crowley were right; Romney was wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/georgie.binks Georgie Binks

    Emma..As a woman who discovered feminism as a teen many years ago, it gives me great hope knowing that there are young women like you and your friends willing to continue the good fight. Great article and wonderful to know that you can make a difference.

  • Clayton Burns

    The total CNN debate-aftermath package was enlightening. I agree that Candy misplayed the Libya issue, twice though, in allowing a bizarre presentation of the initial question, and in being unable to keep the administration’s remarks in focus. Despite all that, she did the job in eliciting a strong debate in which she had to coordinate the audience questions, a suddenly invigorated President, and the slippery devices of Romney.
    There is no way to achieve perfection in such a format. I find The Washington Post’s coverage today to be by far the best, without the false equivalence that is afflicting The NYT. Rubin, though, should consider the context. The Republican ticket is remarkably weak on foreign affairs. Rubin herself admits that Romney fumbled the follow up to Candy’s intervention.
    The fact that Candy couldn’t keep her Libya matters in tight focus is symbolic of something the media perversely refuse to see. The education for reporters has to be far more powerful in memory and cognition.
    –Posted at 08:30 AM ET, 10/17/2012 TheWashingtonPost

    Obama still wrong on Libya;
    Crowley blows it

    By Jennifer
    Rubin

    In what surely was one of the weirdest incidents in a presidential debate,
    CNN’s Candy Crowley egregiously sided with President Obama on his false remarks
    on Libya, was repeatedly and decisively fact-checked post-debate as wrong
    (somewhere between “mostly wrong” and “pants on fire” in my book) and then
    backed away from her own incorrect assertion.

  • henrva

    Let’s not forget Gwen Ifill. She moderated the VP debate in 2004 and 2008, and did a great job both times.