Second Presidential Debate: Candy Crowley Should Make Affirmative Action a Central Issue

Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent and the host of the Sunday morning talk show State of the Union, will walk into Hofstra University Tuesday night and assume her role as moderator of the second presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Crowley is the first female moderator in two decades. 

There have been only four female moderators since the debates began being televised in 1960. ABC’s Martha Raddatz became thethird female to moderate a vice presidential debate. This year is the first time since 1996 a person of color has not moderated a debate. Isn’t it interesting that at a time when affirmative action is being debated in front of the Supreme Court, we have right in front of us, an example of the lack of diversity that affirmative action is designed to address?

The debates have gone through some changes in format and some changes in sponsors, but the one constant is that debate moderators and panelists are usually white men. The first televised debate in 1960 was sponsored by networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. Given the period in American history it is not surprising that the three debates consisted of all-white male panels. There were no debates between 1960 and 1976, and when they resumed, they were sponsored by The League of Women Voters. The League sponsored nine debates and woman represented 25% of the panelists. Under their sponsorship the debates had various formats including, a moderator led panel of journalists.

Since 1988, the debate series has been run by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). That year, the late Bernard Shaw of CNN became the first African-American to moderate a debate. In 1992, ABC’s Carole Simpson became the first female minority to moderate a debate. The late Pauline Frederick of NPR broke the glass ceiling for women in 1976. That same year the legendary ABC journalist, Barbara Walters moderated the first of her two presidential debates. PBS’ Judy Wodruff and Gwen Ifill are the other minorities who have moderated a debate. In 1996, the commission changed to the current format of a single moderator. From 1988 to 1992 the number of female and minority panelists/moderators doubled to almost 50%, but since the CPD changed to the single moderator format a female or minority has been selected only 20% of the time. Since they assumed sole responsibility there has never been a Latino or Asian moderator.

Still the question becomes, why is there a need for diversity in the debates? Shouldn’t qualified journalists be able to cover the breadth of topics important to all Americans without catering to special interest groups or topics? As PolicyMic pundit Sonja Karnovsky reported, there may not be enough qualified female and minority journalists. She said, “One can argue that there is simply a lack of diversity in qualified news journalists. The dearth of moderators of color or females seems to suggest that there is a dearth of qualified individuals that belong to any minority group. Studies seem to support the hypothesis that the overwhelming majority of TV journalists are white and male.” CNN contributor LZ Granderson wrote, “According to an American Society of News Editors study, minorities make up 12.3% of newspaper staffs and 16.4% of online-only news staffs despite being a third of the general population. Similarly the National Association of Black Journalists released a study last month that found minorities filled 12% of the newsroom managerial positions at 295 stations owned by 19 media conglomerates.”

But as we have seen in two formats females and minorities ask questions that white moderators fail to address. Martha Raddatz during the vice presidential debate asked the candidates about their views on religion and abortion, two hot button issues that go to the heart of civil liberties, the role of government and health care. Univision’s news anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas repeatedly grilled Obama over whether he broke his promise to bring up an immigration reform bill in his first year in office, which he made to Ramos in 2008. Is there any doubt that an African-American conservative would question the candidates on the rising unemployment rates in the African-American community? As well as the failure of social welfare programs to stem the tide of poverty? With the future of affirmative action being deliberated in front of the Supreme Court, it would seem to me that this would be a topic broached by a minority journalist.