Deggans: Where's the diversity among presidential debate moderators?

Published Aug. 14, 2012

Here's the thing about diversity in public life: Once you have some of it, folks demand a lot more.

That's why I'm a little surprised to see the Commission on Presidential Debates offer a slate of moderators for four presidential and vice presidential contests this year that ups the ante of gender diversity, while leaving racial diversity in the dust.

Gwen Ifill, the African-American anchor who handled two previous vice presidential debates ably, was nowhere to be seen on the list of moderators announced Monday. Instead, the commission tapped Ifill's PBS colleague Jim Lehrer, Bob Schieffer of CBS, Candy Crowley of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC.

Crowley will moderate the second presidential debate, a town hall meeting in New York state. That detail drew lots of commentary Monday for a sad fact: It has been 20 years since a woman last moderated one of the commission's presidential debates (former ABC News anchor Carole Simpson did the honors in 1992).

Now, with Raddatz handling the vice presidential debate, there is more gender balance among the four debate moderators than ever, addressing concerns in a petition created by three New Jersey teenagers earlier this year challenging the commission on its two-decade drought.

But in an election that will include the first black president attempting to win another term, there will be no non-white moderators on any of the commission's debates for the first time since 1996, when Lehrer moderated the three held that year.

Ifill, who moderated vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, has been involved with covering this election full-time and will co-anchor PBS's convention and election coverage later this year.

But Lehrer, who has quietly retired from PBS NewsHour and said last year he would never moderate another debate, reconsidered when the commission suggested format changes, according to a POLITICO report.

Ifill also wrote a book published on Inauguration Day 2009, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, that led to pointed questions from some conservative critics before the 2008 debate she moderated.

It's sad to note that there are so few journalists of color in key anchor positions, few other names resonate with the experience, profile, gravitas and record of impartial journalism needed to fill the moderator's role. NBC's Lester Holt? Ifill's colleague Ray Suarez on the NewsHour? CNN's Don Lemon, Christiane Amanpour or Soledad O'Brien? (NPR's Michele Norris, another great pick, is sidelined from political coverage because her husband is working on Obama's campaign.)

At a time when the biggest non-white voice in news media may be opinionators such as Al Sharpton and Geraldo Rivera, a set of debates where the candidates are more ethnically diverse than the moderators may say more about failing struggles to diversify the journalism business than anything.