Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Why No Diversity Among Presidential Debate Moderators?

Host Michel Martin shares thoughts on news that this year's presidential debates — during a historic election in which race, gender and age are a centerpiece — will be moderated exclusively by older white men.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, I want to say a word about the debates. The Commission on Presidential Debates has decided. There will be three debates between the presidential candidates. The moderators will be - hold your breath - Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Bob Schieffer of CBS News and Jim Lehrer of PBS.

Let me get this straight. In an election year in which questions about race, gender and generational change have been central to the public and private discourse, the commission decided that these three white men - aged 68, 71 and 74 respectively - are the only people qualified to question the candidates, when one of the candidates is himself a 70-plus-year-old white man?

Can I just tell you? I'm not hating the players, only the game. I consider Bob Schieffer a friend and a mentor. He, along with the late Tim Russert of "Meet the Press," and the late Paul Duke of "Washington Week," were the first people to give me an opportunity in broadcasting when they put me on their weekend public affairs talk shows. These men all do fine work and they've all paid their dues. But you cannot tell me that race and age do not matter in a year when race and age are two of the issues that people bring up when they talk about how they're going to vote and why.

Think about it. If the commission had picked three forty-something African-Americans to moderate all three debates, do you think somebody would say, gee, is that fair to John McCain? Or try it this way. If, God forbid, Barack Obama were forced by some indiscretion to face a trial by jury, the law would require that he be judged of his peers. And if by chance some sleazy prosecutor would try to eliminate, say, all the African-Americans from the jury pool, the defense would be permitted to make something called a "Batson challenge." That comes from the 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky, which held that eliminating potential jurors just because of their race violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

So if it's important that a jury be integrated when someone is facing a fight for his treasure or her freedom, why isn't it equally important that a candidate be questioned by his peers when he's fighting for his political life? Now the commission's executive director, Janet Brown, in announcing the decision last Wednesday, said the moderators were chosen because they are, quote, "very serious," with, quote, "I don't want to know how many decades collectively they represent in the news business."

Well, if seriousness and experience are most important criteria, in what universe does PBS' Gwen Ifill not qualify? And the commission knows it. Because why else has she been tapped to moderate the vice-presidential debate for the second time?

But let's put her aside since she's one of my closest friends and I could be biased. But what about "60 Minutes" correspondent Leslie Stahl? What about Katie Couric, one of the best interviewers in the business? What about Ruben Navarette, an award-winning syndicated columnist whose politics defy categorization? What about Ray Suarez of PBS, whose easy facility with issues from urban planning to international affairs have made him a sought-after moderator across the country? What about the award-winning CBS journalist Byron Pitts? What about Univision's Jorge Ramos?

The commissioners also would like us to believe that these debates are all about the issues. But exactly what is an issue, is a matter of opinion and perception? The time Obama brushed his shoulders off in response to a political attack, I don't know anybody my age thought that was a sexist gesture, but 73-year-old Geraldine Ferraro did. Enough to complain about it for months. So who gets to decide that?

This is all the more dispiriting because the Commission on Presidential Debates includes H. Patrick Swygert, the former president of Howard University, the lawyer and activist, Antonia Hernandez, and former Clinton administration Press Secretary Mike McCurry, who is a baby boomer, among others, including, well, a group of 70-year-old-plus white men.

Do I think they, as a group, decided to ignore or dismiss people of color and women because of their race or gender or age? I don't think so. Do I think they assumed a minority or baby-boomer journalist would be so dazzled by Obama they couldn't think straight? I hope not. But I do think they made the all too typical mistake of seeing white men as the universal citizens, the standard by which everybody else must be judged without recognizing that they, too, have a perspective, a life history, a worldview, while younger people, minorities, women - well, you are all on probation. You will just have to wait your turn. Whenever that is.

And that's our show for today. We are going to leave you now with music from Isaac Hayes, who passed away yesterday. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk again tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues