Debatable Choices

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In case you missed it, earlier this month, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced their picks to moderate the three presidential debates this fall. The chosen: NBC's Tom Brokaw, CBS's Bob Schieffer and PBS's Jim Lehrer.


So, in an election year in which race, gender and generational change have dominated politics and public discourse, the commission decided that these three white men, aged 68, 71 and 74, respectively, are our nation's best choices to question the candidates and represent voter consciousness about the issues? When one—and only one—of the candidates is also a 70-plus-year-old white man?

Don't get it twisted; this is not about hating the players, just the game. The chosen ones are all esteemed journalists and have not only paid their dues but supported a number of younger reporters in their own careers, myself included. No, my criticism is aimed at the tired institutional thinking that automatically defaults to older white men to bring gravitas and credibility to important national events and assumes—wrongly—that the men are somehow free of a perspective shaped by their own life circumstances and life stories.

Think about it. What if the commission, a non-partisan, non-profit group that has sponsored all presidential and vice presidential debates since 1988, had picked three 40-something African Americans to moderate all three debates? No matter how much experience and name recognition those journalists brought with them, people would question whether, as a group, they represent the full range of views and perspectives in the American electorate, and indeed whether such a lineup was fair to both candidates.

At a press conference announcing the decision, the commission's executive director, Janet Brown, said the moderators were chosen because they are "very serious." "I don't want to know how many decades collectively they represent in the news business," she said.

Well, if seriousness and experience are most important, in what universe does PBS's Gwen Ifill not qualify? The commission has tapped her for a second time to moderate the vice presidential debate. How, then, can she not have the experience to moderate one of three presidential matchups? And if my perception is clouded by my longtime friendship with Ifill, then how about 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, who knows what it's like to break into the boy's club as much as Hillary Clinton did? What about Katie Couric, one of the best interviewers in the business? What about the award-winning CBS journalist Byron Pitts? What about CNN's Soledad O'Brien, whose reporting and interviewing chops have been tested in every format from live morning television to long-form documentary? What about Ruben Navarette, an award-winning syndicated columnist whose politics defy categorization? What about Ray Suarez of PBS, whose easy facility with issues from urban planning to international affairs have made him a sought after moderator across the country? What about Univision's Jorge Ramos, who was one of the youngest major network anchors, and thus, now one of the most experienced? What about Anderson Cooper, a rising star at CNN who would bring extensive international experience along with a generational point of view more in line with a growing and intensely engaged portion of the electorate?

The first debate, to be held Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi and to be moderated by Lehrer, will focus on domestic policy. Brokaw will host the second on Oct. 7, a town-hall-style matchup with audience and Internet questions at Belmont University in Tennessee. The third, to focus on foreign policy, will be moderated by Schieffer at Hofstra University in New York.


The commissioners want to make these debates about the "issues." But deciding exactly what is an issue and what priority to assign them is itself a matter of opinion, perception and experience.

Earlier this year when Obama brushed his shoulders off in response to a political attack, few people under 50, certainly not most blacks, viewed it as a sexist gesture; most viewed it as a hip-hop reference to "brushing off the haters." But 73-year-old Geraldine Ferraro didn't see it that way and complained about it for weeks. When Sen. Clinton made her remarks, early in the primaries, about how MLK and the civil rights leaders needed politicians like LBJ to actually get the legislation in place, the campaigns argued for weeks (and in some ways are still arguing) about who was playing the race card and who was playing it straight. Who gets to decide what issues are important?


Surprisingly, the commission itself is somewhat diverse. The panel includes the former president of Howard University, H. Patrick Swygert, and the lawyer and activist Antonia Hernandez. Former Clinton administration press secretary Mike McCurry, a baby boomer, is among them. Did this group consciously decide to ignore or dismiss people of color and women because of their race, gender or age. Unlikely. Did they assume a non-white, under-60 journalist would be so dazzled by Obama or so freaked out by the national spotlight that they couldn't think straight and play fair? Hard to imagine.

What the commission did do, it seems, is default to thinking of older white men as institutional standard-bearers that automatically convey universality, objectivity and credibility. But older white men are people, too, and just like younger people, women and non-whites, they come with worldviews, prejudices, perspectives and life stories that inform their understanding of issues. Wouldn't everyone have been better served if the three debates were led by a combination of moderators that better reflected the diverse life experience of the candidates, as well as the potent richness of the electorate?


TV Week's Michele Greppi asked commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf what kind of feedback he was getting about the quartet of moderators, and he said …"Absolutely nothing but positive remarks . . . from the general political realm."

The general political realm? Who would that be, Frank? I think we know.

Michel Martin is host of NPR's Tell Me More. She adapted this article from her weekly commentary on her program called, "Can I Just Tell You?"