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Posted at 09:13 AM ET, 08/02/2012

Debate official on campaign for a female moderator: ‘It’s very hard to find someone who can do that’

And now, a few words from some presidential debate principals, even as three savvy New Jersey girls clamor for a woman to moderate at least one Obama-GOP presidential candidate face-off this fall.

Sammi Siegel, left, Elena Tsemberis, center, and Emma Axelrod carry boxes containing their petitions to the Commission on Presidential Debates for a female moderator of the upcoming debates, on July, 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)
Being a highly paid, experienced journalist of either sex does not automatically confer the skills needed to pull the best answers from candidates who insist on reciting campaign blather to whatever the question, and won't think twice about accusing a zealous inquisitor of committing lamestream-how-dare-you-ask-about (fill in the blank) journalism. The moderator should also be the least ego-driven person on stage.

I know this because in 1988, while covering the campaign for the Orlando Sentinel, I was the only woman panelist on the first Bush-Dukakis debate, which was also the Commission on Presidential Debates’ maiden political production.

I shared this assessment with Janet Brown, who has run the bipartisan, nonprofit, male-dominated CPD since its 1987 founding, when it took control of these quadrennial political productions from the League of Women Voters.

Given the commission’s 2012 plan for two 90-minute Q&A sessions — one each on domestic and foreign policy — plus a town hall with audience questions, all three moderators must be adroit journalistic jugglers, Brown told me.

“Each debate will cover six topics lasting 15 minutes, picked by the moderator and announced ahead of time. That places a big burden on the moderator to use the time wisely to craft a good exchange.  You can lob up names of accomplished journalists ‘til the cows come home, but it’s very hard to find someone who can do that.”

Debate moderator Jim Lehrer speaks in the first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. Sept. 26, 2008. (Reuters)
Jim Lehrer of PBS is one broadcast pro who definitely can do it.  Eleven moderating gigs since 1988 arguably make him the Michael Phelps of presidential debates. He groaned at the comparison during our phone interview (sorry sir, it needs to stay in) and agreed these are skills not easily aggregated.

 “You need the ability to think and talk at the same time and do it on live TV. You have to know ‘Is this person saying something really important that has to be followed up on?’ while you are wondering ‘how much time do I have left?’”

There is more. “It requires a tremendous amount of homework because you also have to be relaxed.” And aware that one zinger question or answer can revive or sink a campaign.

Also, “It’s really important that we have moderators who know it isn’t about them.”


Lehrer diplomatically refused to speculate on which female colleagues possess such talents, or whether he is available for an encore, though the former Marine likened a PDC summons to the military draft. “Sheer public service,” he called it, never mind that he has said he’d never do another one.

Republican presidential candidates Ron Paul (L), Rick Santorum (2nd L), Mitt Romney (2nd R) and Newt Gingrich debate on Feb. 22, 2012 in Mesa, Ariz. with moderator John King. (Don Emmert - AFP/Getty Images)
Brown would not be pinned down on whether the commission, which will choose moderators in mid-August, will put a woman in charge of any of them.

Still, the work of the Jersey girls — Sammi Siegel, 15, Elena Tsemberis and Emma Axelrod, both 16 — has not just inspired two sets of e-petitions containing some 170,000 names in support of a female-helmed panel. They and, one of two facilitating Web sites, have pretty much owned the coverage in this gender equity skirmish that began in May.

Since their lightbulb moment in a Montclair High School civics class, the three teens have reminded us that the last woman moderator was Carole Simpson of ABC-News. She did the honors at a 1992 town-hall style event featuring Vice President George H.W. Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and millionaire Texas businessman Ross Perot.

Brown wants us to remember that the 2004 and 2008 vice-presidential debates were led by Gwen Ifill of PBS, and that since 1988, a total of nine women and 12 men have taken part as panelists or moderators in an unbroken string of chief executive and veep forums.

As Axelrod told CNN on Wednesday, the 20-year absence of a Simpson successor “sends a powerful message about women.” The high schoolers also opined that female journalists may be more attuned than men to issues involving reproductive rights and child care, although Siegel did say “I don’t think a man would be better than a woman or a woman be better than a man. I just think the commission should not continue overlooking qualified women.”

Gwen Ifill of PBS, with David Broder, moderated the 2004 and 2008 vice-presidential debates. (Alex Wong - Getty Images)
Earlier in the week, the students — who are too young to vote and were years from being born when Simpson was chosen — attempted to meet with Brown, the only full-time staffer at commission headquarters. (Because they hadn’t called for an appointment, she said, she was out of the building caring for an ailing, elderly relative.)

They also tried to deliver four cartons of petitions, which a guard refused to accept for security reasons. In a town where everything from anthrax spores to death threats are dispatched to offices, such prudence, while irksome to the young women, is a grim fact of life here.

The trio also sought to deliver petitions to the Democratic and Republican National Committees in the hopes that President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney would also push for a woman moderator. lists six seasoned journalists who might warrant a top debate spot: Ifill, naturally; ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour (who also works for CNN); Lesley Stahl of CBS and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.

Stay tuned.

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and staffer whose work has appeared in Town & Country, More and The New York Times. She has no interest in moderating a debate. Really.

By  |  09:13 AM ET, 08/02/2012

Tags:  Commission on Presidential Debates, Sammi Siegel, Elena Tsemberis, Emma Axelrod, Jim Lehrer, Carole Simpson, Janet Brown, Lesley Stahl, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Gwen Ifill, Christiane Amanpour

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