On the eve of the second presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley has drawn sharp rebuke from both political parties for daring to say that she may add her own wisdom and political knowledge to further challenge the candidates and spark a real discussion. The criticism leveled against Crowley brings into question not only our treatment of women’s role in the media, but how we view the channels by which we judge our political contenders.
If we look at the example that Martha Raddatz set, the bar is very high for her fellow female moderator. The only way that Raddatz seemed to fall short was trying to cover too much in too short of a time. She sometimes cut the candidates off, or would move on to another subject rather abruptly.
Even her introduction to the television audience was very captivating and unique, for two reasons. Firstly, Raddatz really humanized herself when she joked about her son setting her ringtone to a rap song and having it go off during a White House press conference. Men rarely talk about their children or family in professional forums, probably for fear they will be regarded as soft.
Secondly, she casually mentioned that she wasn't used to having her back to crowds because she was so used to covering stories in war zones. As a foreign correspondent, it was rule number one for Raddatz not to turn her back to a crowd in such situations. Obviously, this woman was highly qualified to host a debate and had been in far more precarious situations that holding the middle seat between two vice presidential candidates.
But no matter what the task, women in media seem to have to be twice as qualified as men to hold the same positions. It's like that old quote: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did backwards and in high-heels.” The same can be said of female correspondents; they have to have major credentials to get a place at the table, while making it look effortless.
Candy Crowley has been a correspondent for CNN since the covering the Reagan administration. She is the first female to moderate a debate since 1992. Even as women seem to progress, it seems like we constantly need to push for equal rights. Progress often comes in the form of token equality, such as in '92, when people wanted an 'Oprah Style' town hall forum and subsequently chose a black woman to moderate. And still, in the year 2012, it took three girls in high school to draw national support for a female debate moderator by petitioning for at least one woman to be a part of the discussion.
While the general role of a moderator should be to prompt discussion amongst candidates, too often candidates merely stick to their own talking points without engaging each other or the moderator. It’s not up to political advisors and parties to dictate the direction of the debates based on their own personal politics. Debates are not meant to be campaign ads. Jim Lehrer got raked over the coals for being a pushover, while Raddatz was applauded for being strict and adhering to the rules, so it’s clear people prefer their moderators to be strong, not just mere puppets.
Strong moderators reassure viewers that they are getting real information. Generally, people distrust the media based on their own political bias. Everyone on the right accuses the media of being too liberal, so they choose to watch networks that reflect their own rhetoric. But the media itself isn’t inherently biased. It's just individual outlets, whether liberal or conservative, which push an agenda that related to their own politics. No one individual or collective group is without bias. Everyone is influenced by their background, education, and profession, whether they’ll admit it or not.
In order to combat such bias, and in order to reform debates, candidates should not be given topics in advance. They should be able to transition from a broad range of topics from domestic to international policy without just addressing their own platforms and talking points. Political campaigns should have no say in the format of the debate, particularly in a Town Hall format where the questions are coming from citizens.
In fact, some of the most genuine reactions from candidates (like Bill Clinton’s response to "Boxers or briefs?") have been hosted by networks like MTV or the Linda Ellerbee Special on Nickelodeon, where candidates are address a youthful audience. In such formats, candidates are not trying to cater to the illusive undecided voter, but actually answering raw and unedited questions from children and teens who have no political agenda whatsoever, other than seeking the truth or authenticity.
The three high school girls from Montclair, New Jersey who petitioned around the country via Change.org to have a woman chosen to moderate the debates, may very well have helped get Candy Crowley at the top of the heap for female moderators. Their efforts are an important reminder that every generation needs to push for women’s rights. Crowley's selection as moderator has just demonstrated that no matter how many groundbreaking moments there are for women, we have to continually keep pushing in our own generation. We cannot expect our predecessors to have done all the work for us, because gender bias and sexism come in new forms with each new era.
For every feather in the women’s rights cap added for having a female debate moderator, there are always setbacks. Right now, somewhere in a control room deep within CNN, there’s a male producer in a control room, critiquing an aged woman’s turkey-neck rather than her line of questioning, even as the campaigns actively try to prevent her from asking anything at all.