Jorge Ramos: Debate Commission Stuck In 1950s

This year's presidential debates have no Latino moderators on the slate. So one network is taking matters into its own hands. Univision's Jorge Ramos is set to moderate discussions with each of the major party presidential candidates. He tells host Michel Martin it's time for the Commission on Presidential Debates to move into the 21st century.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, even as school districts struggle with budget pressures, the drive to bring technology into the classroom continues. We'll talk about what teachers around the country want most in their classrooms and why.

But first, to politics. You've probably heard the political analysts talk about how important the upcoming debates will be in the race for the White House. For the first time, a Spanish language network, Univision, is set to host two Meet the Candidates events with each of the major party candidates.

These conversations will be moderated by Univision's top anchors, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas. But the milestone only came after the network protested that the debates did not include a Latino in the roster of moderators - indeed, any person of color.

We were joined earlier this week by Jorge Ramos to talk about those upcoming events. He's the co-host of Univision's evening news program "Noticiera Univision" and the host of the weekend program "El Punto Con Jorge Ramos." Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JORGE RAMOS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you take a step back and tell us what happened between Univision and the Commission on Presidential Debates after the roster of moderators was announced? And I just want to remind people it was two men, two women, no people of color, nobody of Latino background. What happened then? Did you call the commission? Did you call the candidates?

RAMOS: What happened is that the commission is stuck in the 1950s and that has to change. The commission decided that two men and two women were going to be the moderators for the debates and I really thought it was incredible, truly incredible, that they didn't choose a Hispanic journalist to be part of the debates.

About 22 million Latinos might be able to go to the polls. But if 12 million go to the polls only, then they will decide who's going to be the next president of the United States. That's the new rule in American politics. No one can make it to the White House without the Hispanic vote.

So we wrote to the commission. The commission rejected our proposal to either include a Hispanic journalist or to have another debate about Hispanic issues and at the end what we had to do was the following. If they didn't want to invite us to the party, we created our own party. So that's exactly what we're going to have, our own debates.

MARTIN: I understand that you made a plea on your evening news program where you talked about this. We're going to play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NOTICIERA UNIVISION")

RAMOS: (Spanish spoken)

MARTIN: But for those who don't speak Spanish, what did you say?

RAMOS: What I said is that we've learned from the African-American community and from leaders in the United States that you have to speak up and that's exactly what we were asking our audience, to speak up. If they agreed with us that it was unfair not to have a journalist in those debates to let us know and to let the commission know and to let the candidates know and to let the parties know.

And it seems that that's exactly what happened. And I can honestly say maybe only a few hours after we actually made this plea on the air, both candidates agreed to participate in what we are calling a Meet the Candidates forum.

MARTIN: When you say that these forums will address issues of specific concern to Hispanic voters or Latino voters, what kinds of things are you talking about? Obviously, we're not, you know, trying to rehearse here but give me a sense of what kinds of things you think should be addressed in these forums that you don't think will be addressed in the other forums.

RAMOS: It is not that Latinos are a nation within a nation, but we have our own specific concerns. We have to take into consideration that one out of two Hispanics in this country over 18 years of age was born outside the United States. So obviously we're going to be talking about immigration. So we have to ask Governor Romney about his self-deportation idea.

We have to ask him why he's against immigration reform, why he opposes the DREAM Act, why in the platform they are for building a new fence between Mexico and the United States. And for President Barack Obama, we have to remember that he broke a major electoral promise when he said in 2008 that he was going to present an immigration proposal during his first year in office. And he didn't keep his word.

So we have to ask him about that. We have to ask him about - President Barack Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president in the history of the United States, more than 1.2 million immigrants. So we have to talk about those issues. But also, obviously, immigration is not the only issue that we care about.

You know, unemployment within the Hispanic community is above 10 percent. Our dropout rate is huge. Poverty is prevalent within our community. And obviously we have a very, very close relationship with Latin America, so we want to know what are they going to do with the dictatorship in Cuba, with the flow of arms and drugs from Mexico to the United States and vice versa, what's going to happen with Hugo Chavez.

Now, can you ask all these questions in the traditional three debates that we're going to have? We're not sure, but we just couldn't run the risk of not asking these questions.

MARTIN: Why do you assume these moderators would not ask these questions? It would seem that those would be important questions for any journalist to ask.

RAMOS: Let me tell you something. I personally admire the work of Candy Crowley and Martha Raddatz and Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer. They are fantastic. I think they are first-rate journalists. But the United States is much more diverse than that. The moderators have to include Hispanics. They have to include at least one African-American. And I'm sure they're going to ask the top questions but are they really going to - all these issues that we discussed?

Are they going to spend 15 minutes, 20 minutes talking about immigration? I really doubt it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Jorge Ramos. He will be one of the moderators at Univision's Meet the Candidates forums. These forums were agreed to by the candidates after the Commission on Presidential Debates failed to include any journalist of color, certainly no Latino journalist, in the roster of moderators selected for this year's presidential and vice presidential debates.

You know, to that end, Latinos make up 8.9 percent, you know, of voters. African-Americans certainly make up at least that percentage. Are you going to include any African-American presence in your Meet the Candidates forums?

RAMOS: I think we're going to concentrate on Hispanic issues because, honestly, we barely have time to discuss all these issues. But I think it's a great question, something that we haven't even discussed within ourselves.

MARTIN: Well, I'm curious about that. Because, as you know, Hispanics and Latinos can be of any race.

RAMOS: I completely agree with you. I am sure that we share many issues that concern us. They have to do with poverty, with discrimination, with unemployment. And I'm sure many of the questions that we are going to be asking deal also with the African-American community.

MARTIN: You know...

RAMOS: And also, as you know, there are more Latinos than African-Americans in this country and since President Barack Obama was elected there has been a major change within the Hispanic community about the possibilities of electing the first Hispanic president. So if African-Americans were able to get their first leader in the White House, many people who think that the first Hispanic person has already been born.

And, you know, there are many, many names - Senator Marco Rubio, George P. Bush within the Republican Party, or Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, and even Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, just to mention a few.

MARTIN: But you know to that end, though, there are a number of voices that would argue that this focus on race and ethnicity encourages kind of an exclusionary approach that is not necessarily to the benefit of that group. And so I do want to ask, is there - are you getting any kind of feedback to that extent from your listeners or people who follow this work?

That this idea that, you know, Latino voters have to have their own forum maybe isn't such a great idea? I don't know if anybody's saying that. Do you understand what I'm saying?

RAMOS: No, I...

MARTIN: I mean, you remember for example Condoleezza Rice's speech during the Republican National Convention, when she...

RAMOS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Yeah.

RAMOS: Yeah, but this country's supposed to include everyone, and it's not including us. So what are we supposed to do? We did what we were supposed to do, which is to protest the commission's decision and they did not want to rectify. So we had to do something about it.

The American way is not to wait another four more years just to see if the commission in 2016 will include a Hispanic journalist. So we just couldn't wait. I mean, what are we supposed to do? Just to stay silent? We can't do that. Martin Luther King didn't stay silent. Cesar Chavez didn't silent. So we have to do it our own way.

MARTIN: I understand that Univision is going to partner with Facebook to field questions for the forum. I'm interested in where you came up with that idea. I do know that Hispanics have the highest rate of participation on social media. Does that comport with your understanding also?

RAMOS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's very young. It's a very young population.

MARTIN: So what do you think the benefit of this will be?

RAMOS: The benefit would be that we would be talking about not only the traditional issues that we care about within the Hispanic community - obviously education and jobs and immigration - but I think young Latinos have their own concerns, especially having the possibility of reaching college. You've been - I'm sure you've been following President Obama's decision on deferred action. This allowed - or will allow - almost two million undocumented students to go to college.

One of the cruelties of the American educational system is that it allows all students with documents or without documents to go to elementary school and high school, but then after that, they don't let undocumented students to go to college. This is a major issue for the Hispanic community and I'm sure that young people in Facebook and in Twitter. Those are some of the questions that they're going to be asking about.

MARTIN: Can I put you on the spot for a minute?

RAMOS: Sure.

MARTIN: Are you nervous?

RAMOS: No, I'm not. I'm looking forward to doing this. I've done it in the past. I've had the chance to talk with both President Barack Obama and with Governor Romney and with the (unintelligible) of presidents and I think, you know, we're ready, but it could have been me moderating these debates and Maria Elena, but also, there are so many Hispanic journalists who could do this. I mean, if they would have given us the chance, we would have as many journalists as they would need to fill the four presidential debates.

MARTIN: And in what language will the Meet the Candidates forums be conducted?

RAMOS: I guess they'll be - could be called Spanglish, but it's a pretty easy format for us. We would be asking the questions in Spanish. They would be answering the questions in English. We'll have a translator for each one of them and they would translate from English to Spanish to our audience.

You know, what's so amazing for me is that both Governor Romney and President Barack Obama immediately saw it. I mean, they did get it. The commission didn't get it, but they do get the fact that either they appeal to Latinos or they'll lose the election. And they do get it. The Hispanic community, right now, we're about 50 million. In 40 years, it's going to be 125 million, and we're changing everything. It's truly a demographic revolution and the commission didn't get it. The president and Governor Romney - fortunately, they did get it.

MARTIN: Well, we will be watching with interest.

RAMOS: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Jorge Ramos is co-host of Univision's evening news program, "Noticiero Unvision," and the host of the weekend program, "El Punto Con Jorge Ramos," and he was kind enough to join us from Univision studios in Miami, Florida.

Jorge Ramos, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RAMOS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: And the dates for Univision's Meet the Candidate events have now been announced. They are scheduled for September 19th for Governor Mitt Romney and September 20th for President Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, Arnold Rampersad has written noted biographies of Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, but we wondered if even a scholar like him is intimidated writing about such celebrated writers.

ARNOLD RAMPERSAD: I think any biographer who isn't initially intimidated by his or her subject is probably inviting trouble.

MARTIN: We'll speak with the writer and scholar, a legend in his own right, who's now being honored for his extensive body of work. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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