WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 31: 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/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 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, non-profit, 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, Mississippi September 26, 2008. (POOL/REUTERS)

 “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 February 22, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona with moderator John King. (DON EMMERT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Still, the work of the Jersey girls--Sammi Siegel, 15, Elena Tsemberis and Emma Axelrod, both 16—has not just inspired two sets e-petitions containing some 170,000 names in support of a female-helmed panel. They and Change.org, one of two facilitating websites, 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)

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. 

Change.org 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.