Presidential debate: Teenage girls campaign for woman moderator in 2012

Three female high school students have launched an online petition drive to convince the Commission on Presidential Debates to name a female moderator for one of this year's televised presidential debates.

By , Contributor

For 20 years, presidential debates have muted the voice of the majority of American voters: women.

Since 1992, no female journalist has served as the moderator of a presidential debate. But this fall, change might be coming – thanks to three high school students.

Three classmates at Montclair High School in Montclair, N.J -- Emma Axelrod, Elena Tsemberis, and Sammi Siegel – are mounting an online campaign that calls for a female moderator in this year’s presidential debates between President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The petition, posted on Change.org, has garnered more than 116,000 signatures.

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It has even caught the attention of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the organization tasked with selecting the debate moderators.

“If women make up 50 percent of the population, why in the last 20 years have they made up 0 percent of this very powerful role?” said Ms. Axelrod in an interview. “It’s really inexplicable.”

The last woman to moderate a presidential debate was ABC NewsCarole Simpson in 1992, when Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot squared off. PBS’ Gwen Ifill moderated the vice-presidential debate in 2004, between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, and in 2008, between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. All other presidential debates have featured male moderators.

Inspired by a civics class, the petition frames its objective as an issue of equality. The students launched a subsequent petition this week urging the Obama and Romney campaigns to support their initiative.   

Ultimately, the CPD – whose 17 members include just two women – retains full authority over its decision and has enjoyed the backing of Democrats and Republicans for years. In its quest for moderators, the commission seeks veteran television broadcasters who “understand their job is to facilitate the conversation and focus their time on the candidates,” says Janet Brown, its executive director.

Ms. Brown pushed back hard against allegations that women have been excluded as moderators, noting that nine women and 12 men have sat on panels and moderated vice-presidential debates since 1988. Still, she says the commission “welcomes input from everyone.”

Besides, Brown adds, variations among moderators don’t fall across gender lines.

“There’s a difference in moderating styles between any two individual moderators,” she says.

But others say the expectations ahead of presidential debates could shift when a female moderator is involved – particularly in this year’s campaign where issues like abortion and contraception have coalesced into what Democrats call a “war on women.”

“There would be an obligation to make that part of the itinerary,” says Allan Louden, a communication professor at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C., who studies presidential debates.

Others say it’s impossible to predict what female moderators would ask – simply because they’ve haven’t had the chance for 20 years.

Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media and News, pointed to the 2004 vice-presidential debates, when Ms. Ifill moderated, as evidence that women can broach unique and poignant policy areas. Ifill asked Mr. Cheney and Mr. Edwards about confronting the hardships of black women who suffer disproportionately from AIDS.

“When you had an African-American woman journalist in control of the questioning, then you had very relevant questions being asked,” Ms. Pozner says. “The fact that it happened during a vice-presidential debate is great. But vice presidents don’t shape policy in the way that presidents and their bully pulpits do.”

Pozner says the historic lack of women as presidential debate moderators reflects their underrepresentation in major journalistic roles, as both reporters and producers.

“The higher you go up the media ladder, the lower the percentages of women in positions of power,” she says.

The petition’s creators won’t endorse prospective female moderators but their Change.org page offers photos of some contenders: Ifill, ABC News' Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, CNN's Christiane Amanpour, CBS News' Leslie Stahl, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. The students say the campaign isn’t about support for a particular candidate but rather a call for equal representation that any top woman news broadcaster or any top newswoman could fulfill.

The moderator selections will be announced sometime this summer, Brown says. Next week, the girls will travel to Washington, D.C., to present their petition in person to the CPD.

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