Univision Creates Own Candidate Forum, Questions About Diversity in Presidential Debates Remain

Univision Creates Presidential Candidate Forum

Univision, the network behind the nation’s most-watched Spanish-language news programs, announced late Thursday that it will host a pair of Facebook forums with the presidential candidates leading up to the election.

The network’s lead anchor team, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, will moderate what the company described in a statement as the “first-ever meet the candidate” events to, “directly address topics of importance to the Hispanic community in Spanish and English.”

The network did not respond to requests for comment about the event or about whether the forums are related to the nearly two-week-long public battle launched by Ramos, and Univision President and CEO Randy Falco against the Commission on Presidential Debates.

In the 10 days since the commission that controls the moderator line-up for the nation’s presidential and vice presidential general election debates announced plans to have only white moderators shepherd the televised events, a public conversation has bloomed about diversity and its influence on different types of work.

“Regardless of what you make of Ramos and his approach, it is logical to think that different questions and ideas would come from different questioners,” said Félix Gutiérrez, who teaches at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and studies issues related to race and ethnicity in the media.

“I think the debate commission suffers from a common problem," he continued. "They are looking at the U.S. as it once was, rather than the U.S. that is and wondering why anyone is complaining.”

Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, was out of town and could not be reached for comment; commission staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.

The line-up, announced Aug. 13, was initially considered a boon to long-standing calls for greater diversity in the debate moderator ranks.

CNN’s Candy Crowley was tapped to moderate a presidential debate. PBS’ Jim Lehrer and CBS’ Bob Schieffer, both white male anchors who have previously moderated presidential debates, will oversee the remaining face-offs. ABC’s Martha Radditz, a second white woman, will guide the vice presidential debate.

But within days of the announcement, journalists of color along with Ramos and his boss launched a full-scale assault on the commission’s decisions and what they described as a failure to recognize the nation’s increasingly diverse electorate. The Obama campaign predicts people of color will comprise 28 percent of the nation’s electorate this year, the National Journal reported.

By the end of the week, the NAACP, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the National Associations of Black and Hispanic Journalists, Falco and Gwen Ifill, an African-American PBS journalist who moderated vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008, had joined Ramos, voicing concerns about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

Lines of questioning and certain issues are more likely to be excluded, they argued. Univision mentioned its objections in an evening newscast and invited both candidates to participate in a Spanish-language debate staged by the network, independent of the debate commission.

Politico reported that Brown, the commission's leader, described Univision's request as simply not feasible. The commission believes the, "four journalists we have named see their assignment as representing all Americans in their choice of topics and questions. The general election debates have always focused on issues of national interest that affect all citizens debates that reflect the full range of American diversity, including Univision's audience," Brown said.

But Ramos wasn’t done. He sent tweets first protesting the commission’s decision, then describing the size and growing importance of the Latino electorate, then asking for viewers' opinions.

Seguimos insistiendo en tener nuestro propio debate con Obama y Romney. Hay temas que no tocaran en ingles ¿deben aceptar? (We insist on having our own debate with Obama and Romney. There are issues that will not be touched in English. Should they accept?)

He also penned an open letter on Univision.com warning the Republican Party about its prospects:

Dear Republicans: You will lose the Hispanic vote in the next presidential election. President Barack Obama will receive millions more Latino votes than your candidate Mitt Romney. But that’s not the worst part. I’m writing to let you know that unless you change your anti-immigrant positions, you might be sentenced to losing the White House for several decades.

Ramos’ arguments and invitation to a Univision debate have little to do with the actual criteria the commission uses to select moderators, said Diana Carlin, a Saint Louis University professor, who studies political messaging and the presidential debates. But his open advocacy might.

When choosing moderators, the commission looks for ample experience on live television, the skill to manage the candidates' time, and the confidence to, when necessary, interrupt the president of the United States, said Carlin. The moderator has to keep track of which candidate answered which questions and ensure that candidates get the same amount of time to answer. And finally, those selected must have a reputation for being fair.

The debate commission allows the campaigns to veto moderator choices, Carlin said.

“Moderating is not as easy as it looks,” said Carlin. “You have to err on the side of having people that you know can do this. You have to find someone the candidates aren't going to reject. That is one of the reasons that they circle back around time and time again to those who have done the debate moderation work before.”

But a Spanish-language national television network anchor like Ramos has the same level of experience tracking time and responses and managing heads of state, said Gutiérrez.

Spanish-language newscasts involve just as many moving parts and anchors typically are experienced reporting on a variety of domestic and foreign policies potentially important to their immigrant-heavy audiences, he said.

“The unspoken rule used to be that if you were writing about economics, the housing crisis, whatever your serious issue, the sources were male and pale,” he said. “And while there are a number of news organizations that have made efforts on this front, it still requires individual reporters to make the effort to think about their work and what may be missing because of who is missing."

"I think what we see with the debate commission, is another case of the white-man Rolodex being called into play.”

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