When CNN’s Candy Crowley moderates the second presidential debate in a few weeks, she will be only the second woman to perform that role since Carole Simpson in 1992. So that’s good news, right? Except for one thing: Like Simpson before her, Crowley was chosen for the “town hall” debate, the forum in which audience members ask the questions. In other words, this outstanding journalist—who interviews politicians regularly on her own Sunday-morning show, State of the Union—will be holding the microphone but rarely speaking into it.
In America today, women can run for president (and, as Hillary Clinton put it during the 2008 primaries, get enough votes to “put about 18 million cracks” in the presidential glass ceiling) but can’t be trusted to ask two men some tough questions.
Perhaps the presidential debates would not have featured a woman moderator at all if last summer three high school girls from New Jersey hadn’t called on the Commission on Presidential Debates to include one. In their online petition, which collected over 100,000 signatures, the girls wrote:
Women and men will never be truly equal in our country until they’re one and the same in positions of power and both visible in politics. We need to take immediate action in order to move towards this change.
So when the commission slotted Crowley in, the girls got their wish. But only sort of. During the October 16 face-off, Crowley will get to ask follow-up questions. But Jim Lehrer and Bob Schieffer, the men moderating the other two presidential debates, get to steer the debates by asking whatever questions they want. In a scenario that will feel familiar to women all across America, Crowley is tasked with running around and helping the audience while the male moderators have some real power.
In 21st century America, that’s shocking—as is the fact that none of this year’s moderators, male or female, are people of color. These two developments are not just a failure to make progress; they’re a form of backsliding. Because a quarter century ago, we were doing much, much better.
Up until 1988, the League of Women Voters ran the presidential debates. Under its leadership, gender diversity among media figures at the debates—which used to feature panel-style groups asking the questions—was much greater than it is today. But the League of Women Voters became fed up with presidential campaigns dictating the terms of the debates and what questions could and could not be asked.
And so, in 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed and the role of women has gone downhill ever since. Of the 14 active directors of the Commission, all but four are white men. And under the Commission, of 28 total presidential debate moderators and panelists from 1988 to 2008, just eight have been women. Only two presidential debate moderators—Carole Simpson and Bernard Shaw—have been people of color. In the last four election cycles, even the town hall debates were moderated by white men.
In the past two elections, PBS's Gwen Ifill, who is African American, moderated the vice presidential debates. At the VP debate this year (on October 11), that role will be filled by another excellent journalist, Martha Raddatz of ABC News. But Ifill didn’t “graduate” to the presidential level. So young girls watching TV won’t see any women truly running the show at the presidential debates. Instead they’ll see the smart, experienced Crowley turned into the political version of Vanna White, turning the letters over for the contestants and the TV audience at home.