Aug 1 2012

Gender Focus: Put Women at the Presidential Debate Podium

Two decades since last female moderator

League of Women Voters--Photo Credit:

League of Women Voters–Photo Credit:

It’s been 20 years since a female journalist has been chosen to moderate a presidential debate. Yes, women have held the post for vice presidential debates, but that’s hardly the real deal. ABC News’ Carole Simpson was the last woman to lob questions at presidential candidates, back in 1992.

What is going on?

Well, I guess I get it. After all, imagine what would happen if a woman was tasked to broker a conversation between the two most important people in U.S. politics. Why, she just might ask for the candidates’ favorite pie recipes, or not know about the economic crisis, or say the word “vagina,” or cry.

Of course, that’s a bunch of BS. The Commission on Presidential Debates needs to appoint a woman to moderate one of the three upcoming debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In fact, a petition circulating at—created by three New Jersey teenage girls—is appealing to the Commission and has garnered over 100,000 signatures.

Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, says it “speaks volumes that women are relegated to [moderating] the vice presidential debates.” In 1988, the nonpartisan League withdrew their sponsorship of presidential debates to protest how debates were conducted under the new Commission, created by the Democratic and Republican parties (League news release, 10/3/88): “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

The woman-run League had been instrumental in appointing a string of female presidential debate moderators. When the parties wrested control of the debates away from the League (Extra! Update, 8/00), female parity became a memory of a bygone era.

In an age where an all-male Congressional panel can rage on about women’s reproductive rights (Extra!, 4/12), it’s imperative that a woman pose questions to the presidential candidates about future policies that will affect her gender. Think who is asking the questions doesn’t impact the political discourse, or influence policymaking? Take the “Ifill incident” as an example.

When PBS’s Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards (10/5/04), she stumped both candidates with a question about the growing rate of AIDS among African-American women in the U.S.

Both men seemed to scratch their heads and say, “Gee, I had no idea.” It was a shameful moment for the candidates, and a testament to why more women and women of color need to be in positions where they can grill our leaders. You can bet no white male moderator would have asked that same question.

It’s not just that a woman should ask questions for women; it’s that a female perspective is important and healthy for the entire nation—just as a man’s is.

Appointing a woman isn’t just about what questions she will ask. It also declares that she’s qualified to hold the position—just like a man. So the dearth of female moderators says a lot, without letting women say a thing. Journalist and Seton Hall University women’s studies professor Mildred Antenor says, “The message that it sends out is that men are in charge, and that men are the only ones who are capable of that type of work.”

And if white men are the only ones deemed capable of moderating presidential debates, think about who will never get so much as a peek at a podium: women of color, young people, out gay people, anyone with the hint of an “accent.”

Our all-male moderators reflect the gender gap in the rest of politics and the media. Only three of 17 commissioners on the Commission on Presidential Debates are women. Women hold only 17 percent of the seats in both houses of Congress. And in a recent study by the 4th Estate (5/29/12), women are staggeringly under-represented by the media, with outlets overwhelmingly citing male sources instead of women on a range of election issues, including women’s rights.

The Commission has three chances to right this wrong, and pass the mike to a deserving female journalist this presidential election. And by “deserving,” I don’t just mean any woman working in media. We want a woman who will ask challenging and thoughtful questions that will truly inform the public about their presidential candidates.

A well-informed electorate is perhaps the most essential ingredient for a functioning democratic system. Since the House of Representatives is intended to be the United States’ most democratic federal institution, citizens particularly need thorough coverage from local media outlets of their potential representatives to make an informed decision about who will best serve their interests.

It’s unfortunate, then, that quality news on congressional elections is so hard to come by. Dan Shadoan wrote a piece for Extra! (1–2/95) demonstrating that leading papers based in three major cities—the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and L.A. Times—failed to provide substantial coverage of the congressional elections in their areas of circulation. He found that the media typically report only on a handful of races deemed most worthy of attention—usually for largely superficial reasons.

In the year leading up to the 1994 congressional races, the New York Times only ran 27 articles on the 20 New York districts surveyed (an average of 1.4 for each district), while the L.A. Times ran 49 articles on its 23 districts (averaging 2.1 apiece) and the Chicago Tribune ran 97 articles on its 13 (an average of 7.5). Shadoan observed that the little coverage that did exist was disproportionately allocated to the closest and “flashiest” races.

To see if smaller papers do a better job, Extra! conducted a similar study of coverage of recent local congressional races by the St. Petersburg Times (circulation 299,000—Audit Bureau of Circulations, 3/31/12), Portland Oregonian (248,000), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (189,000), Bur-lington (Vt.) Free Press (31,000) and Madison, Wisc., Capital Times (which became Web-only on April 26, 2008; previous circulation was 19,000).

The new study counted articles devoted to 2008 and 2010 congressional races in the districts representing the papers’ central city and surrounding suburban areas. The period studied ran from January 1 to Election Day in early November for each election year. Articles were included in the study if they had a clear focus on the specific district’s race.

Shadoan found that in the 1994 elections, the three newspapers combined ran an average of 3.1 articles on each congressional race studied. The five papers surveyed in the current study ran an average of 2.6 articles on each race in the 2008 election. In the 2010 election, the five smaller papers did somewhat better, with 3.3 articles per race. This improvement is largely due to the Burlington Free Press’s extensive coverage of Vermont’s at-large race, which was the focus of 23 articles. The other four papers averaged 2.6 stories per race in 2010.

In the 2008 congressional elections, the St. Petersburg Times devoted 14 separate articles to the nine congressional districts surveyed (an average of 1.5 for each district). In the 2010 elections, the paper ran 19 separate articles for the nine districts (an average of 2.1).

In the Portland metropolitan area, the Oregonian ran 23 separate articles on the four districts surveyed (an average of 5.8). In 2010, there was a slight drop, with 19 separate articles on the four districts (an average of 4.7).

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette devoted 15 articles to the seven Pennsylvania districts surveyed (an average of 2.1 for each district). For the 2010 elections, the Post-Gazette increased its coverage to 26 articles (an average of 3.7).

In the six congressional districts surveyed for Madison’s Capital Times, the publication devoted a total of six articles to the races, averaging one per district. In 2010, the only local race covered by the Capital Times was the 2nd District, which had only two pieces, for an average of 0.3.

The Burlington Free Press, with only Vermont’s one “at-large” congressional district to cover, published 12 articles on the 2008 congressional race. In 2010, by contrast, it ran 23 articles on the race, making the Free Press—with by far the smallest circulation of the print publications studied—the best paper analyzed in terms of coverage per district for the 2010 elections, and second only to the Post-Gazette in total articles published on local congressional races.

As in the 1995 study, there were patterns as to how the little coverage that existed was distributed. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s most-covered races for the 2008 elections, for example, were the 4th and 12th Districts, for two reasons: The races appeared to be “close,” and one of them was marked by controversy when Rep. John Murtha of the 12th District remarked publicly that many of his constituents were “racist.”

For both the 2008 and 2010 elections, three races had no articles devoted to them, but were sometimes mentioned in “round up” pieces that reported on multiple races. Pennsylvania’s 14th District received almost no attention in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, even though it contains Pittsburgh’s main urban center. This is most likely because there were no serious expectations that Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle would lose to either of his opponents: Green Party challenger Titus North in 2008, or Repub-lican Melissa Haluszczak in 2010. Third-party candidates like North, and major-party challengers who are viewed as highly unlikely to win due to lack of popularity or campaign funding, are often marginalized in media coverage of local elections—thus cementing their disadvantage.

In 2008, Wisconsin’s 1st and 2nd districts received the only attention of the six races in the Capital Times’ coverage area, the 1st having been repeatedly deemed a competitive race between Republican Paul Ryan and his Democratic challenger Marge Krupp. As in the Pennsylvania’s 14th District, the third-party candidate (Libertar-ian Joseph Kexel) wasn’t mentioned in a single article.

In 2010, the single race covered by the internet-only Capital Times was the 2nd District contest between Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin and Republican challenger Chad Lee. Only two articles were devoted to this district; the rest received no substantial attention whatsoever—including the 1st District, where constituents received no help from their main local outlet in making the decision whether to return Ryan, now a prominent player in the national economic debate (Extra!, 6/11), to Wash-ington. With the exception of its 3rd District, most of the congressional races in Wisconsin that year were won by very large margins, and there were no juicy scandals reported.

The St. Petersburg Times devoted nine articles in 2008 to Florida’s 5th District (the paper’s most reported-on race); many focused on Republican incumbent Ginny Brown-Waite’s husband’s battle with cancer, while several emphasized her controversial comments regarding Puerto Ricans as “foreign citizens.” There was very little discussion of actual policy issues on which Brown-Waite and her opponent differed. Of the nine 2008 races in the paper’s local area, seven weren’t mentioned in a single article.

For the 2010 elections, five districts were not reported on at all; each race ended up with a large victory margin. (In the case of the 6th District, there was no opponent.) The only reports on the 13th District concerned allegations that Republican challenger Vern Buchanan had received illegal campaign contributions.

The Oregonian did a slightly better job of covering its districts, but still heavily favored one over the others. For the 2008 elections, only one of the four districts received no attention, although the coverage was largely concentrated in the 5th District, described as “the only truly competitive contest among Oregon’s five house seats” (Oregonian, 10/14/08). Several pieces also addressed Republican challenger Mike Erickson’s controversial trip to Cuba. In the 4th District, unopposed Democratic incumbent Peter Defazio was the subject of seven articles.

In 2010, the paper devoted 11 of 19 articles to the 4th District race between Defazio and Republican Art Robinson, a close contest that one article (10/28/10) described as the “biggest head-scratcher” in Oregon’s 2010 congressional races; the 3rd and 5th districts were not reported on at all.

In Vermont’s 2008 elections, Peter Welch’s campaign was the subject of 12 articles in the Burlington Free Press. He faced no Republican challenger, but had five minor-party or independent opponents. As was also the case in Pennsylvania’s and Wisconsin’s congressional races, the third-party candidates received little to no attention in the local newspapers. Unsurprisingly, Welch emerged victorious in a landslide.

For the 2010 elections, many Free Press articles emphasized Republican challenger Paul Beaudry’s support for the Tea Party and neoconservative policies. In a state with a progressive reputation, the articles conveyed a clear sense that Beaudry didn’t stand a chance; Welch won with 64 percent of the vote.

The trends Shadoan observed in the quality and quantity of congressional election reporting in big-city papers in 1994 are little different in smaller-market papers some 15 years later. Races that were marked by controversy or were considered “tight” still received the most attention in local newspapers; third-party candidates and disadvantaged challengers continued to be largely ignored.

The Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press stood out as a paper that devoted numerous articles to the one race in its circulation area in both election years, despite an expectation that the district’s incumbent was in little danger of losing his seat. It’s true that serving a region with only one congressional district makes it easier for a paper to devote resources to the race, but if the Free Press had applied the standards used by most papers in the study, it might not have covered Vermont’s congressional election at all.

The assumption that, scandals aside, only competitive elections deserve coverage ignores the role of elections in fostering democratic discourse. They provide an opportunity for citizens to raise and debate issues, and to learn about their representatives’ positions—and for representatives to learn where their constituents stand. And if a challenger seems unlikely to overcome an incumbent’s advantages, surely they will have even less of a chance if they get little or no attention from the outlets where voters get their news.

It remains the case that if you want to cast an informed vote for Congress, local daily newspapers will likely not be much help. n

When it comes to ginning up scandals, the Obama administration has been a disappointment for the right-wing media, which had much more luck in the Clinton era. But they’ve found some red meat with “Fast and Furious”—thanks in large part to CBS Evening News, the story’s most prominent platform. Like most Clinton scandals (Extra!, 9–10/95, 11–12/96, 1–2/97), however, the story looks far less scandalous when you learn the details left out of most media accounts.

The “Fast and Furious” story, as peddled by the right, tells us that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)—a perennial target of pro-gun activists—allowed guns to be purchased in the United States and shipped across the border into Mexico, where they ended up being used in the December 2010 shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Instead of stepping in to arrest the buyers, the scenario goes, the agents let the guns fall into the wrong hands on purpose, hoping to arrest bigger players.

Soon after Terry’s death, the story bloomed into a political scandal, with conservative lawmakers demanding to know who was behind the program. Barack Obama has claimed executive privilege to block the release of internal Justice Department communications about the program. That led to a congressional vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.

For some on the right, the program had even more sinister aims: The Obama administration, they charge, deliberately let guns fall into the hands of criminals in order to use the ensuing crisis to push for more restrictive new gun laws. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who has championed the scandal, raised this possibility in an appearance before the NRA. (See sidebar, page 10.)

But an investigation by Katherine Eban in Fortune (6/27/12) shows that the Fast and Furious narrative is “replete with distortions, errors, partial truths and even some outright lies.” Those lies were told most influentially by CBS Evening News.

CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s first report (3/3/11) alleged that her ATF agent source, whose job is to “stop gun trafficking across the border,” was told to do something else:

He says he was ordered to sit by and watch it happen. Investigators call the tactic letting guns walk. In this case, into the hands of criminals who would use them in Mexico and the U.S.

Attkisson told viewers that “the idea was to see where the guns ended up, build a big case and take down a major cartel.” She added that the ATF “not only allowed the guns to walk, they videotaped it.”

The story became a major focus for Attkisson, and she stuck to the script: “ATF was allegedly allowing Mexican drug cartels [to] be armed with assault rifles from the U.S.,” she explained (3/4/11). Anchor Bob Schieffer (10/3/11) followed suit, telling viewers that

the idea was to allow illegal guns to be shipped into Mexico so investigators could trace where they were going and get a better handle on where Mexico’s criminal cartels were operating. The program has been a disaster.

Attkisson’s reporting formed part of the narrative carried by the right—and earned her an award from the far-right Accuracy In Media (2/1/12).

On June 20, 2012, as the scandal’s political dimensions grew, Attkisson offered viewers a quick recap:

In late 2009, ATF agents in Phoenix noticed a flurry of gun purchases in the United States by suspected traffickers from Mexican drug cartels, including giant 50-caliber rifles. But instead of stopping the weapons, agents say their superiors ordered them to let the guns cross the border.

One key fact pointed out by the Fortune investigation: Arizona, home to many “straw buyers,” boasts incredibly lax gun laws. As a result, Arizona federal prosecutors would not prosecute the drug cartels’ presumed gun buyers—because, they said, charges wouldn’t stand up in court. The permissive gun laws that make it exceedingly difficult to indict suspicious gun buyers, Eban points out, are championed by groups like the NRA. She noted the irony:

Republicans who support the National Rifle Association and its attempts to weaken gun laws are lambasting ATF agents for not seizing enough weapons—ones that, in this case, prosecutors deemed to be legal.

Indeed, ATF agents compiled what they believed to be detailed cases against specific buyers—20 suspects paying $350,000 for over 600 guns as of January 2010. One suspect—who was apparently receiving food stamps—had purchased $300,000 worth of firearms in six months.

But, according to Eban’s story, prosecutors thought otherwise:

The federal prosecutors there did not consider the purchase of a huge volume of guns, or their handoff to a third party, sufficient evidence to seize them. A buyer who certified that the guns were for himself, then handed them off minutes later, hadn’t necessarily lied and was free to change his mind. Even if a suspect bought 10 guns that were recovered days later at a Mexican crime scene, this didn’t mean the initial purchase had been illegal.

Eban’s investigations shows that ATF officials faced considerable odds in their attempts to build cases that prosecutors would follow up. Prosecutors did not step in, Eban reports, until the Terry murder—at which point 20 suspects were indicted.

What about the gun that was found at the scene of Brian Terry’s murder? According to CBS’s Attkisson (3/3/11), “Two assault rifles ATF had let walk nearly a year before, similar to these, were found at Terry’s murder.” But Eban points out that the guns in question were purchased legally. By the time the ATF was notified by the gun dealer, “the legally purchased guns had been gone for three days. The agents had never seen the weapons and had no chance to seize them.”

The Fortune investigation demonstrates that CBS’s reporting of the story is highly misleading. There was, in fact, no plan to purposely allow guns to flow into Mexico. What there was, rather, was a belief that applicable gun laws made it impossible to legally seize the guns. Somehow a story that should have focused on the consequences of NRA-approved gun laws became a scandal about something very different.

The Fortune story did inspire other media followups (NBC News, 6/29/12; Wash-ington Post, 6/28/12). But what about CBS Evening News, which did so much to turn this story into a national scandal? The program went silent.

And in some ways, the damage was done. On ABC World News, correspondent Pierre Thomas reported news of new indictments in the Terry murder this way (7/9/12): “The irony is, the United States government is pulling out all the stops to solve a murder it apparently contributed to by putting guns in the hands of Terry’s killers.”

That a network TV correspondent could blithely accuse the U.S. government of being an accessory to the murder of a federal agent shows how deeply the false narrative of Fast and Furious has become embedded in the media.