On Being the Lady with the Microphone

The first woman to moderate a presidential debate reflects on the experience and how little has changed since 1992.

Carole SimpsonSimpson moderating the Oprah-style presidential debate. (C-SPAN)

Way back in 1992 I became the first woman and first minority to moderate a presidential debate. This past summer I was constantly asked, "Why hasn't another woman moderated a presidential debate?"

Why people thought I had the answer, I don't know. It should have been directed to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Supported by the Republican and Democratic Parties, the Commission has been responsible for producing the debates since 1987. Together with campaign officials for the candidates, Commission members decide the dates, locations, formats and moderators for the one debate for vice president and the three for president.

Allow me to point out here that of the 17 members most are male and white. Only two women serve on the Commission. Perhaps a problem?

When three teenage girls from Montclair, New Jersey, learned in their civics class that no woman had moderated a presidential debate in 20 years, they took up the cause. They thought it was wrong that female voices were not being heard in questions posed to those who would be president. The girls mounted an online petition campaign, gathering at least 150,000 signatures, urging the Commission to name a female moderator for one of the presidential debates this October.

Whether that effort had any effect is questionable, but the Commission did announce in August that CNN's Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley would moderate one of the presidential debates and ABC's Martha Raddatz would moderate the vice presidential debate. Many women rejoiced. I did not.

Crowley and Raddatz are journalist friends of mine and each has sterling credentials for the roles they will assume. But the Commission has marginalized them -- not by leaving them out of the process this time, but by the assignments they've been given.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has marginalized Crowley and Raddatz -- not by leaving them out of the process this time, but by the assignments they've been given.

Moderating the vice presidential contest has almost become the women's slot. PBS' Gwen Ifill, a black female journalist, moderated vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. Now Raddatz will have the honor. But the vice presidential debates are a nicety. Let the people hear the candidates have a go at each other. What they have to say may be at times entertaining, but their policy positions don't amount to a "hill o' beans." Apparently, women can handle this secondary event, which has virtually no impact on how people will vote for president.

Twenty years ago when the Commission tapped me to moderate the first town hall debate, I was told the members wanted it to be an "Oprah-style" show. (Is that why they chose a black woman?) President George H.W. Bush, Governor Bill Clinton, and independent businessman Ross Perot were to answer questions from an audience of undecided voters from the Richmond, Virginia, area.

Basically, my role was to hold the microphone for each of the citizen questioners. I could ask a follow-up to clarify their questions and point out discrepancies in the candidates' answers. I could also call time when the men went on too long. But I could not ask my own questions. I was simply the figure you see at so many forums -- a character I've come to think of as "the lady with the microphone" -- albeit one who was an anchor for a major television network.

Candy Crowley will also moderate the town hall format debate, and she will operate under the same restrictions I had. However, the two male moderators of the other debates will ask their own questions of the candidates, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Jim Lehrer, formerly of PBS, will be moderating his 12th debate and he gets to ask about domestic policy during the kick-off debate on October 3. CBS' Bob Schieffer will tackle foreign policy later in the month.

In an election cycle when women's issues have shared center stage with the economy, it seems ludicrous to me that a woman will not be asking questions about health, reproduction and contraception issues. This is not to say the men are not capable of posing those kinds of questions, but they would lack the impact and import that a woman's voice could bring to the moderating table. A woman moderator would understand how these issues directly affect women, and can probe the candidates' positions more effectively.

Certainly, the politically astute Crowley will do what she can to make her debate successful and enlightening to the television viewers across the nation and the world. But I'm afraid, because of the Commission rules, she will be another marginalized woman -- another "lady with the microphone."

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Carole Simpson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston, is a former anchor for ABC News, and is the author of NewsLady, a memoir based on her 40 years as a broadcast journalist. In 1992, she became the first woman and the first minority figure to moderate a presidential debate.

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