The moderators for the presidential debates have been chosen, and not everyone is happy. The Commission on Presidential Debates selected CNN’s Candy Crowley, PBS’ Jim Lehrer, and CBS’ Bob Schieffer for the presidential face-offs, while ABC’s Martha Raddatz will host the vice-presidential debate. In response, Geraldo Rivera, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and other Latinos expressed disappointment with the lack of diversity. The CEO of Univision, Randy Falco, even wrote to the Commission, offering to hold a separate forum on Hispanic issues. His offer was declined.
Given the growth of the Hispanic population and our importance in this election cycle, it is understandable that Rivera, Falco, and NAHJ would like to see a Latino asking questions of the candidates. Yet the Commission showed sound judgment in its choices. Crowley, Lehrer, Schieffer, and Raddatz are all eminently qualified to be moderators. They are trusted, respected, and highly intelligent journalists – and that’s what should matter most to voters.
Univision was misguided in seeking a separate event for Latino issues. Aside from their corporate self-interest, it simply does not make good sense. Only one in five registered Latino voters say Spanish is their dominant language, according to a 2011 poll by the Pew Center, while a majority of Hispanics speak English. We don’t need to remove our concerns from the mainstream media; we need to show that Hispanic issues are American issues. Nor should we make it easier for candidates to say one thing to Latinos, and another to a wider audience. So segregating ourselves is not a good approach.
Having a Latino moderator for diversity’s sake is a good idea in theory, but not in practice. If the Commission selected a Hispanic, then what about African-Americans? What about Asian-Americans, and the gay and lesbian community? It would be unfair to allow one group “representation” and not another. Insisting upon diversity among the moderators diverts focus from where it should be: the candidates. The best solution is to find moderators capable of representing all Americans, with integrity, fairness, and intellect – which is exactly what the Commission has done.
In not selecting a Hispanic moderator, it is doubtful the Commission acted with discriminatory or exclusionary intent. Any established status quo takes a long time to change, and it is only recently that Hispanic issues have merited serious attention from the parties and candidates. This is partly our own fault, as Latino civic participation continues to lag behind other demographics. Pew reports that 31 percent of eligible Latino voters turned out at the polls in 2010, well behind the figures for African-American voters (44 percent) and white voters (48 percent). But once Latinos start voting in proportion to our soaring numbers, we will be impossible to ignore.
Incidentally, consider the way that two women came to be included as moderators. No woman had been the sole moderator of a presidential debate in twenty years. Then this summer, three high school students in Montclair, New Jersey, started an online petition asking the Commission to name a female moderator. Their campaign went viral, sparked a national conversation, and culminated in the selection of Crowley and Raddatz. This grassroots effort by these teenagers should be a lesson to all of us. They made themselves heard; they got results.
True, there are issues facing the Hispanic community – like racial profiling, voter suppression, and our educational attainment gap – that could be highlighted by a Latino moderator. There are also Hispanic journalists who could handle the assignment, such as Jose Diaz-Balart, who already took part in a September 2011 NBC/Politico Republican presidential candidates debate. And if you want a Latina, there is Maria Elena Salinas, or Soledad O’Brien. Still, the best litmus test for a moderator should be whether they are an outstanding journalist, not their ethnicity or background.
Despite the criticism over their lack of diversity, no one is saying that the Commission’s moderators are not up for the job. The day will come when having a Latino leading a presidential debate is a non-event. Until then, voters need the most experienced, qualified moderators available – not affirmative action for elite Hispanic journalists.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.