It was 1992 and the presidential race between incumbent George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot was in full steam.
Five days before the second debate, ABC’s Carole Simpson was named the first woman-and first African American-moderator.
It was also the first time a television debate would include a “town hall” segment, enabling selected “typical” American citizens to ask questions.
So many firsts. And a woman who was, in many ways, alone in trying to figure it out.
“I had no tapes to go by,” Simpson said during a live panel presentation Thursday evening. “I don’t have any way to see how this is going to look.” So she “studied morning, noon and night. I made up my own questions, in case something happened.” It was the pinnacle of her career, so she just kept saying to herself: “Carol you gotta do it. You just gotta do it.”
Flash to 2012. Candy Crowley, CNN’s Chief Political Correspondent was told in August that in October she would be moderating the second presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Plenty of time to prepare.
It might seem that we have come a long way, baby. Except for this: Crowley is only the second woman to moderate a presidential campaign. Between Simpson and Crowley there has been a twenty year gap.
Which was exactly the point the Women’s Media Center (WMC) wanted to drive home at that panel presentation in Manhattan held at The Paley Center for Media, in association with the center and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. THE WMC, founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, has surveyed who holds the jobs in the media and starting at the top the numbers are startling for 2012. And not in a good way for women.
Of all TV News Directors, 28.4 per cent are women while 71.6 per cent are men. In general, when it comes to women in key media positions, the Center notes: “We are only rarely using half our talent and usually hearing half of the story.” The Center adds that is “beginning to create a level playing field for women and girls in the media through our monitoring, training, original content and activism.”
At the panel presentation, Simpson detailed how she figured it out herself. Hours before the debate she found the room where those typical citizens were waiting and asked them exactly what were the issues they cared about most. At the time, the Bush campaign was trying to defeat Clinton on character issues. A woman named Gennifer Flowers had announced having an affair with the candidate. Bush, as Simpson noted, was facing scrutiny of his own character. Talk had surfaced about his alleged dalliances with a woman named Jennifer Fitzgerald.
Point blank Simpson asked the citizen questioners in that waiting room: “‘Do you care about Gennifer Flowers? Do you care about Jennifer Fitzgerald?’ They said, ‘no!’ I said, ‘What about the Iran-Contra scandal?’”
They didn’t care about that either. According to Simpson, they instead listed the topics they wanted debated: Taxes, the trade deficit, poverty, education, business, rebuilding the cities and more.
“I did know the issues and I did have questions on the issues,” Simpson said. As Bush began to attack Clinton on the basis of character, Simpson chimed in to tell him that the citizen questioners wanted to hear his views on other matters.
“Mr. President,” she said. “I had a meeting with this audience.”
Later, she said, “One man stood up and he said, ‘We’re sick of this mudslinging we want questions answered that we care about.’” Simpson says that she “watched George Bush and it was as if he was a balloon and somebody put a pin him.” She added that he acted like a gentleman, albeit a deflated one. He also checked his watch three times during the debate.
It was said that Simpson, by changing the course of the conversation, threw the debate to Clinton. Indeed, in the days that followed she received death threats.
The Paley Center panel was moderated by Pat Mitchell, the center’s President & CEO. Others on the panel included Meena Bose, the Peter S. Kalikow chair in Presidential Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York -where this year’s second debate will be held. Bill Wheatley, Executive Producer, NBC News and Caitlin Thompson, Director, Online Political Coverage for WNYC were also on the panel. Thompson spoke about this being the first real twitter election since far more people tweet now than did in 2008.
“Town hall was the predecessor of what social media has become,” she said.
At one point during the discussion, Mitchell asked if reproductive issues would be discussed in the debate. Wheatley said he did not expect they would be part of the first debate, to be moderated by Jim Lehrer.
Perhaps Candy Crowley will ask different questions.