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Same Old White Guys Run the Debates

Marie Cocco

A presidential campaign in which a prevailing theme is "change" makes it all the easier to see just how much things remain the same.

Take the presidential debates to be broadcast this fall. The Commission on Presidential Debates plans three events, as usual, with one a "town hall" format featuring questions from voters, a recent custom on its way to becoming routine.

Another tradition is firmly upheld as well: Three white men will be in charge of questioning Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama on behalf of millions of American voters who, as a group, are less white and male than ever before. Gwen Ifill, an African-American who is moderator and managing editor of PBS' "Washington Week," drew the number two spot. She will moderate the vice-presidential debate, as she did in 2004.

I have nothing against Jim Lehrer, executive editor of "The NewsHour" on PBS, or Tom Brokaw of NBC, or Bob Schieffer, the host of CBS' "Face the Nation." But how about a dose of reality? Race and sex already have become flashpoints in this campaign. McCain's age is an issue and Obama is sparking enormous enthusiasm among younger voters. So why are we stuck in a media rut with three white men, the youngest of whom, Brokaw, is 68?

Including the vice presidential moderator, "We chose four people who we thought were qualified," says Janet Brown, the commission's executive director. "That doesn't mean others are not."

Brown said the panel's research into voter preferences led it to conclude that a single moderator, rather than a panel of questioners, makes the best format. There also is a preference for moderators with live television experience. As for the vice presidential debate being assigned to the sole female and person of color, Brown said the commission does not consider the job to be a lesser assignment. "Gwen is not seen as being any less important a moderator or having less important an assignment than any other moderator."

Using the commission's criteria, it's pretty darned simple to come up with the names of television correspondents who are experienced in the issues and have the requisite live coverage credentials. Katie Couric, the CBS News anchor, is one. Christiane Amanpour, the CNN correspondent who has reported live from dangerous conflict zones for two decades, is another. Andrea Mitchell of NBC also would fit the profile.

Brown said the panel avoids naming network anchors as moderators because "they are such celebrities." It's awfully hard to see how Couric could be considered more famous than Brokaw, who, with his best-selling books and other projects, sometimes seems like a one-man industry. But never mind. The point is that the commission looked around and what did it see? The same old picture.

Since the commission began running debates in 1988, only one female correspondent, Carole Simpson of ABC, has moderated a presidential forum. That was in 1992 and the format was a "town hall" meeting in which Simpson's role was to facilitate questions from the audience, not ask them herself. Before his retirement, CNN's Bernie Shaw moderated both a presidential and a vice presidential debate. Simpson, Shaw and Ifill are the only African-Americans who've had such high profile roles.

"Truth be told, even I would say there are not a lot of women on the level of the Brokaws and the Schieffers," says Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center. "It's the networks that are so thin on women and people of color." The center is petitioning the debate commission to add more representative moderators to this year's lineup, not to eliminate a moderator who already has been announced. But Brown said that's not likely because of the single-moderator format.

Would more women, African-Americans, Hispanics or those of other ethnic backgrounds ask the presidential contenders dramatically different questions? Perhaps not. Once a campaign settles into the stretch, the issues that are dominating public discussion inevitably dominate the debates. Just once, though, I'd like to see the candidates pressed on how changes they propose to Social Security would affect women -- the group most dependent on the program and most vulnerable to changes in it. I'd like not just to hear about our future military posture in Iraq, but about America's responsibility to the millions of refugees the war has created.

There is value in pursuing the same issues from a different perspective. But it seems that this year we are destined again to see them through the same lens.

--Marie Cocco

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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