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)