Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Women in the Presidential Debates

Today, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the moderators for the 4 debates for this election. There are three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, all have a single moderator. When I looked over the list I was a little saddened to see only one moderator was female and that she'd been relegated to the Vice Presidential debate. That moderator is Gwen Ifill, a senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Managing Editor of Washington Week on PBS. Ifill had the same job back in the 2004 debates. Turns out she's the only female involved in moderating since 1992.

What's even worse is that this isn't a big step forward for the debates, instead it's a big step back. The first televised debates were in 1960, and, not surprisingly, had no female moderators or panelists. But when the next debates came in 1976, there was a significant amount of female involvement. All four debates had a female panelist or moderator. All four women from that year are excellent role models, the kind of women who entered journalism at a time when it was a heavily male-dominated industry but went on to become highly successful reporters.

From 1976 to 1988, every debate had a female moderator or panelist. In 1992, three out of four had one or more women as a panelist or moderator. Barbara Walters appeared three separate times in those years.

Part of the change may be due to the fact that from 1988 on, all debates were sponsored by the Commission itself. Before 1988, the League of Women Voters hosted the first debate in 1984, 1980 and 1976, adding a stronger female presence. But that's not all of it. Nearly every debate featured women from 1976 to 1992, not just the ones the League hosted. Another change came in 1996 when panelists were removed from the format. The previous debates often featured a number of panelists who would give questions to the candidates, and many of them were women.

I also wonder if this is more of an issue than just a change in the rules or format of the debates. Do we have a smaller presence of strong female reporters these days? So many like Katie Couric and other women on cable news don't have as strong a journalism background as the women who participated in these debates. Many of them have backgrounds in softer programming, like Couric's previous job on Today . (Couric briefly did a stint covering the Pentagon for NBC, but quickly moved to Today.) When I did a google search for "female news anchors" nearly every result contained the word "sexy" in the title somewhere, maybe that's part of our problem.

The women involved in the debates include Helen Thomas, the most famous White House correspondent; Ann Compton, the first female television news reporter to cover the White House full time; Jane Bryant Quinn, a contributing editor for Newsweek, the author of a column that ran for 27 years, and a co-developer of Quicken software; and Pauline Frederick, a correspondent for NBC and the first female recipient of the Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. Many of them were the Chief Correspondent for their news organization covering issues like Foreign Affairs, the United Nations, and the White House. Where are the serious newswomen of today? And why are they so conspicuously absent from a large forum such as the debates?


Noticed said...

Thank you for this post. When I read the list of the debate moderators, I was excited to see at least one woman on the list, only to learn she was relegated to the VP debate.

It seems we are indeed going backwards. There are more qualified women out there than ever before, and they're actively being kept out of the process.

Habladora said...

Maggie, great post! It is good to have you on-board as a regular contributor!

I feel like the dumbing-down of news - and news anchors - is an across-the-board trend, but one that has particularly impacted which women get hired for high-profile media positions. The readjusting of the focus of our news media has been detrimental to US politics.

I like Gwen Ifill, though. I'm sure she'll do a great job.

frau sally benz said...

This is an awesome post!

It's sad, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense why we are going backwards: in the 70s and 80s, the reality that men and women were not equally represented was still fresh in people's minds. Now, 30 years later, many think that women are equal now, so nobody worries about it anymore. We "have" access to birth control, abortion, better pay, better jobs, etc. (I use have in quotation marks b/c, as pretty much all the readers here know, these are things we're still fighting for in reality, but the perception is that we do have it).

Natalie said...

Will Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente be participating in the debates this year as the Green Party's candidates?

Maggie said...

It doesn't look like it, Natalie. The rules for candidate selection say there has to be proof of 15% of the popular support for a candidate before they can be eligible. I'm guessing this is specifically to exclude candidates like McKinney. But it explains why Ross Perot got to debate.

Rules are here:

Habladora said...

Hey, Maggie! Further discussion of this awesome post of yours can be found (here) at Feminsting, (here) at Women's Voices for Change, and (here) at Urbanesse.

Libby said...

Thanks, Maggie. It's some kind of step that a black woman will be moderator, but I do wish, especially in national debates, there was more diversity as far as race, gender and age goes. I guess old white men still know best...