During the National Urban League's national convention in mid-July in Detroit, we challenged the Commission on Presidential Debates to call for a debate focused on issues of concern to urban Americans and people of color all over the United States. We were concerned that the issues of importance to our communities would be neglected by the mainstream national media and by the two campaigns, which are both keenly focused on issues of national security and not on the economic security that affects millions of Americans of color.
Since then the commission has chosen the journalists who will moderate what analysts are calling perhaps the most important presidential debates since 1960. Unfortunately, it sent a strong signal that issues of concern to urban communities and people of color are of secondary importance in our national dialogue. The moderators for the presidential debates are Jim Lehrer of PBS, Bob Schieffer of CBS and Charles Gibson of ABC. All three are fine journalists with long careers in broadcasting, and our issue is not with them. It is with the fact that all three of these journalists are white men who come from very similar backgrounds.
Graciously, the commission asked PBS's Gwen Ifill, who is African American, to moderate the vice presidential debate. It was a vice president, John Nance Garner, who described that office as "not worth a bucket of warm spit." Apparently, this is what the debate commission thinks of the myriad African American and Latino journalists who could have offered a different and unique perspective in leading the discussion between the two major-party candidates for president.
Since Quincy Howe of ABC, the first presidential debate moderator, assumed his duty on May 21, 1956, only two African Americans have moderated in the 21 debates to date: Bernard Shaw of CNN (1988) and Carole Simpson of ABC (1992). There have been no Asian and no Hispanic moderators or questioners in presidential debates.
The question for the commission is this: What do the three chosen moderators have that Lester Holt of NBC, Juan Williams of NPR, Tavis Smiley of NPR, Joe Johns of CNN, Suzanne Malveaux of CNN and hundreds of other journalists of color do not? Both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations over the past decade have strived to appoint Cabinets that represent all of America. In addition, executive boardrooms across the country are gradually looking more and more like the "face of America."
It is unfortunate that the Commission on Presidential Debates does not see the value in having an inclusive multifaceted discussion between the two candidates. Unfortunately, it is typical of the "Beltway blindness" that the commission has shown time and again over the years.
Once again I will renew the challenges to both presidential campaigns to address the concerns of urban America and meet in a debate moderated by and consisting of journalists of color from across our nation. In many states we may be the difference between winning and losing. While the debate commission may not realize it, I certainly hope both campaigns understand the importance of reaching out to all Americans, regardless of ethnicity or background.
The writer is president and chief executive of the National Urban League.