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Zaino: Does the Commission on Presidental Debates need a shake-up?

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is responsible for organizing and producing the presidential and vice presidential debates, has been charged with bias. The allegations have come from those on both the left and the right -- and they're worth taking seriously.

The charges of gender, racial, ethnic and political bias first came to light in August when the commission announced its lineup of moderators for this year's debates. The list includes Jim Lehrer (PBS), Bob Schieffer (CBS), Candy Crowley (CNN), and Martha Raddatz (ABC).

Given the equitable gender split, criticism regarding gender bias may, at first blush, seem inappropriate. Not so says Carole Simpson who in 1992 became the first woman and minority to moderate a presidential debate. In a recent commentary in "The Atlantic," Simpson makes a compelling case that the CPD is indeed biased against women.

According to Simpson, the commission "marginalized" these female journalists "not by leaving them out of the process but by the assignments they've been given."

She bemoans the fact that once again a female journalist has been assigned to moderate the vice presidential debate arguing that "apparently, women can handle this secondary event, which has virtually no impact on how people will vote for president."

Similarly, she takes the CPD to task for assigning Crowley to moderate a town hall style debate. This assignment insures that Crowley, unlike her male counterparts, will not be able to look the candidates in the eye, ask her own questions and follow up questions. Instead she will be forced to emcee "Oprah-style".

Simpson is not alone in charging the CPD with bias. Shortly after the line-up of moderators was announced the CEO of Univision, Randy Falco, criticized the commission for failing to include bilingual moderators. Similarly, Geraldo Rivera, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Association of Black Journalists all expressed their dismay at the lack of diversity on the panel. In a statement posted on its web site, for instance, the NABJ stated it is "disappointed that the journalists chosen to participate in the presidential debates don't reflect what has become the most diverse electorate in U.S. history. We find it unacceptable that no journalists of color will be involved."

Rush Limbaugh and Los Angeles-based novelist Roger L. Simon have also taken the CPD to task for failing to choose any conservative moderators. Limbaugh described all four of the moderators as "far left-wing Democrats." Similarly Simon noted that there is "not even a token representative from Fox or the Wall Street Journal -- not in the moderator seat anyway.

The root of the problem may well be the CPD itself. Originally formed in 1987 by the political parties to wrest control of the debates from the League of Women Voters and help ensure they remain bipartisan and informative, the question now is whether they are up to the task.

The turmoil following their announcement of moderators and their failure to respond to calls from both sides for a re-examination suggests they aren't. Simpson chalks up the absence of female moderators in key positions to the fact that only two of the CPD's nine board members are women, and both of its co-chairmen -- as well as all its honorary chairmen -- are male. There is a similar lack of diversity when it comes to race, ethnicity and, some say, ideology.

Blogger George Berkin, for instance, argues that the moderators are "left-wing" because "nearly all the nine members of the Commission on Presidential Debates, who choose the moderators, are active liberals."

The charges being leveled against the CPD are serious. If the commission cannot live up to its own mission to ensure that the debates "provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners," it's time for the political parties to look for another alternative.

Jeanne Zaino is interim dean of the School of Arts & Science and a professor of political science at Iona College.

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