Teens push for female debate moderator as female journalists quietly root for their success

Emma Axelrod is one of three New Jersey teens who have petitioned the Commission on Presidential Debates to engage a woman journalist to moderate one of this fall's planned debates. The last time a woman moderated a presidential debate was in 1992. Axelrod and her buds Sammi Siegel and Elena Tsemberis have gotten more than 120,000 signatures, which they unsuccessfully tried to deliver to CPD.

In a video interview with The New York Times' Jodi Kantor, Axelrod says her dad, CBS News reporter Jim Axelrod, would be the "first one to admit that the world is a sexist one."

He sees it in his own business, in broadcasting news. A lot of times the female journalists are expected to be more attractive and present themselves as more attractive, whereas the men are allowed to age in that business. And so he does definitely agree and support that the world needs to be changed as far as sexism goes.

The structural inequity Emma Axelrod refers to is helped immeasurably by an unapologetically opaque process of planning the debates, some of the most important events in our democracy.

"You still see the images of men asking the questions," Emma Axelrod said. "We want the little girls now to see the women asking the questions."

Jim Axelrod, who was CBS News' chief White House correspondent from 2006-2009, sympathized with CPD, saying it's his understanding the body has a tough job negotiating with the campaigns.
If the Romney and Obama campaigns want a female moderator, they'll probably get one. "If there’s any part of this story that’s been under-reported, it’s that part," Axelrod said, when I reached him by phone. He says Emma and her friends have been "almost religiously nonpartisan" about their petition. "They feel very strongly it’s an issue of gender equity."

Axelrod beamed (if that's possible by phone) when he talked about how proud he is of Emma and her friends. "I wish in some ways it wasn’t my daughter because I would love to do a 10-minute piece on 'Sunday Morning' on this," he said, saying it has been "thrilling" to watch his kid help push this question forward.

"I think our culture and society has certainly made some steps," he said. "That said I also think what the debate process is showing all of us is there are ... constructs that are invisible" in society. "And the fact that there hasn’t been a woman moderating a presidential debate in 20 years just says to all of us, 'Let’s examine this. Are we comfortable with this?' "

In the Times video, Kantor replies to Michael Shear's question about why established women journalists aren't in the forefront of this debate:

You and I both know that it's an open secret in broadcast journalism that female political journalists don't feel that they're given equal time, they don't feel equally represented. We turn on shows all the time where you see all men or one woman sitting at the table. And yet these very powerful women in TV don't feel that they can speak up for themselves, they don't want to seem self-promotional, they don't want to seem like they're complaining, so it's left to a couple of teenage girls from New Jersey to raise this issue. ...

They won't say it publicly but part of what this has been to build up a lot of suspense around who will be chosen. Apparently we're going to find out in just a few days or a few weeks who the moderators will be.

Previously: Presidential debates honcho: ‘Very hard to find’ good moderators | Security turns away high schoolers petitioning for female debate moderators | High school students petition Presidential Debate Commission, demand female moderator

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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