For 20 years, only men have moderated presidential debates. On Tuesday, three high school girls demanded a change.“We’ve never seen a woman on that stage,” said Sammi Siegel, 15. “It’s been men all my life, so how am I supposed to feel about myself when I’m being told that only men can do this?”
The three – Siegel, Emma Axelrod, 16, and Elena Tsemberis, also 16 – came to Washington from their hometown of Montclair, N.J., on Tuesday to petition the Commission on Presidential Debates to select a female moderator for one of the debates this fall between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Since starting an online petition in late May as a project in their civics class, the girls have amassed 170,000 signatures.
Alan Schroeder, a professor at the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and a presidential debates expert, said it looks likely that the commission will choose a female moderator thanks in part to the petition. The commission will announce its choices for moderators in August. In 1992, ABC’s Carole Simpson was a member of a panel that questioned the presidential candidates. Gwen Ifill of PBS moderated vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.
Axelrod said she recalled watching the news as a young child with her mother and remarking on the types of women she saw on the screen. They were younger and prettier than their male counterparts, she said. She asked her mother “why this disparity existed in daddy’s business," she said Tuesday. Her mother replied: “In the TV business the women aren’t just there to tell a story; they’re also there to look good while doing it.” Her father is CBS reporter Jim Axelrod, who is not involved in the petition drive.
The girls say that a female moderator would be more inclined to raise issues that have been overlooked by male moderators, such as reproductive rights, contraceptives and family planning.
Their online supporters agree. Tyneisha Harden from Columbus, Ohio, said in her online posting that she signed the petition because “this year’s presidential election is a critical one for women. Only a woman can honestly ask our candidates the questions that will impact our future.”
Schroeder said that the lack of female moderators would not necessarily impact the diversity of questions asked.
He added that the change in format of the presidential and vice presidential debates could account for the reason there hasn’t been more female representation in the last 20 years. In 1996, a panel of journalists was replaced with a moderator. That year PBS’s Jim Lehrer moderated all three debates.
“The lack of diversity among moderators is not so much about a male-female divide,” he said. “It’s the fact that the moderators are always Washington broadcast journalists.”
Though the signatures have been sent electronically to the commission, the trio also tried to deliver boxes filled with printouts of those names to the commission Tuesday. They were turned away for security reasons.
“They’ve been telling the commission since Friday that they were going to be here, so this is not a surprise to them,” said Michael Jones, deputy campaign director at change.org, the organization that facilitated the girls’ online petition. The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The girls took their campaign to the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee as well Tuesday, calling on Obama and Romney to acknowledge the need for a female moderator in this year’s presidential debate. The two major party candidates have to approve debate moderators recommended by the commission.
The students started a second petition a week and a half ago that now has more than 50,000 signatures calling for Obama and Romney to support their campaign.
Students petition for a woman moderator for the presidential debates.