Elena Tsemberis, Sammi Siegel, and Emma Axelrod have sponsored a petition on Change.org that asks the nonprofit, nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates to select a female moderator for at least one, if not more, of the 2012 presidential debates. The debates are already scheduled for October of this year. The petition points out that there has been no female debate moderator for 20 years: this is true, and it is time for this oversight to change.
PBS Washington Week host Gwen Ifill seems to be the most qualified current candidate, as she has moderated the previous two vice presidential debates. The 2008 VP debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin that Ifill moderated had 69.9 million viewers, by far the highest viewership total of any of the debates since the 1992 presidential debate between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot, which also had 69.9 million viewers. Ifill is a groundbreaking African-American female broadcaster, with a strong background in national and international politics. Interestingly, the equally highly-rated 1992 debate was moderated by another pioneering African-American female broadcaster, ABC's Carole Simpson.
The debate that Simpson moderated is the most recent to be moderated by a woman. Prior to this, Barbara Walters performed the duty twice, in 1984 and 1976. The only other woman to moderate a presidential debate was also the first to do so, Pauline Frederick. Frederick moderated the first debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, and Walters was the second woman to moderate. 1976 appears to be a high-water mark for women and presidential debate moderation -- Barbara Walters, Pauline Frederick, and venerable NBC anchor Edwin Newman moderated the three highly-rated debates in 1976, which were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, that has scheduled PBS anchor Jim Lehrer to moderate nearly every debate in recent election cycles, was not founded until 1987.
To review presidential debate moderator history of recent cycles is to review a history of Jim Lehrer, with a sprinkling of Bob Schieffer thrown in for "excitement." It's little wonder that viewership has lagged from the peak of 80 million who tuned into the historic October 28, 1980, presidential debate between President Jimmy Carter and candidate Ronald Reagan. The debate was moderated by ABC's Howard K. Smith; Barbara Walters, who America still loves, was one of three panelists asking each candidate questions.
If presidential debate moderaters are being selected by race-and-gender-spinner, and let's imagine, Jim Lehrer and other broadcasters who've already done it and are over age 70 are excluded, then there are a host of qualified moderators of a younger, more diverse, non-male background who might spice things up. Right now, the go-to female moderator would have to be Ifill.
Although the Change.org petition features pictures of broadcasters who are commonly thought to have "liberal" sentiments, including MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, I have a wild suggestion: Fox's Greta Van Susteren. Van Susteren not only interviews multiple national and international leadership figures each night on her time-slot dominating show (#1 since she left CNN over 10 years ago), she has broadcast live from North Korea three times, and has reported consistently and fairly on issues related to the U.S./Mexico border situation, government finances, and legal concerns. A former criminal defense attorney and native of Wisconsin, Van Susteren would also provide additional diversity in religious viewpoint; she is a Scientologist.