If past is prologue, this year’s presidential debates could be another all-male affair. Even leaving aside the men running for office, a female journalist has not been tapped as a solo moderator of a presidential debate in twenty years—despite all the other strides that women continue to make in politics and media. That might be about to change.
A new campaign calling for “a woman moderator” for the presidential debates has drawn over 115,000 supporters online, through the social action website Change.org, and the Commission on Presidential Debates is taking notice. Janet Brown, the commission’s executive director, told The Nation she knew of the petition’s popularity and her colleagues “welcome” the input “regarding moderator selection.”
The petition, which was started by three high school students in New Jersey, Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegeland and Elena Tsemberis, casts the paucity of female moderators as an issue of equality. “We were shocked to find out that it has been twenty years since a woman last moderated a presidential debate,” the petition notes, in reference to the 1992 debate led by ABC News’s Carole Simpson. The students started the effort in conjunction with their civics class, and it is now “the largest elections-related petition” on Change.org, according to Michael Jones, the site’s deputy campaign director. A related effort on UltraViolet.org, a new organizing platform for women’s rights, has drawn another 50,000 supporters.
Siegel, one of the three students who started the effort, says she hopes all the support will draw the attention of the debate organizers and the candidates. "We have not gotten a response from the Presidential Debate Commission," she told The Nation, adding, "I think that the next step is to directly contact the presidential campaigns, Obama and Romney, themselves."
Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media and News, credits the petition as a “crucial awareness-raising tool” to demonstrate that we “have been backsliding for twenty years where women in broadcast political journalism are concerned.” At a recent presentation to a large media conglomerate, Pozner said that even top media executives had no idea how few women journalists have been asked to moderate the debates. “I told them it had been twenty years,” she recalled, “and several thought I was wrong.” Pozner believes that putting “a woman in the anchor chair in front of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney” is a symbolic and visible way to counter “decades of marginalization.” Yet audience pressure could have even less impact on this issue than on media companies generally, Pozner argues, because the “debate commission is one of the least democratic institutions in America.”
The commission does not claim to be democratic. It is one of those remarkably influential private hurdles in presidential politics, like the Ames straw poll, that wields tremendous power by precedent. The commission has no formal authorization from the government or the press to monopolize general election debates, but it has done just that since 1988. (Even Google failed when it tried to challenge the commission’s role in 2008.) The commission is backed by both major parties at the highest level; four former presidents have served as honorary co-chairs and the acting chairs are party loyalists. In all, the board and co-chairs are comprised of eleven people—including two women.
Yet as the person in charge of the process, Brown strongly disputes criticism of both the commission’s approach and its record on selecting women journalists.
Every cycle, she explains, they look for moderator candidates “who have covered the campaigns and the candidates extensively and are thoroughly familiar with their positions, who have extensive experience in live hard news TV broadcasts, and who will understand their job is to facilitate the conversation with the candidates, and not be an additional participant.”
Turning to the scoreboard on gender parity, Brown argues that the numbers are actually on the commission’s side. She wants people to take in the big picture: if you count the journalists who have been involved in all the general election debates since 1988—including those who served on panels of questioners and those who moderated vice-presidential debates—then “nine are women and twelve are men,” Brown explains.
It is certainly true that women journalists have been involved in this process. In the 2008 vice presidential debate, for example, 70 million people watched a female candidate face questions from a female moderator. (PBS’s Gwen Ifill, who moderated that debate, declined to comment for this article.)
Still, any attempt at an aggregate defense here ultimately misses the point. You don’t advance gender parity by asking women to focus on supporting roles, whether on group panels or limited to the vice-presidential debate, while never finding a woman reporter worthy to take charge in the three big face-offs between the men who would be president. But maybe this year will be different.
This article has been updated.