by Freddie Allen
For New Pittsburgh Courier
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have rejected an invitation from the NAACP and other Black groups, to participate in a forum to discuss issues important to African-Americans.
In late September, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People invited Obama and Romney to articulate their plans for the black community at a presidential forum planned for Oct. 9 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the nation’s oldest Black degree-granting institution.
The NAACP collaborated with the National Newspaper Publishers Association, MSNBC-TV, the Grio, and American Urban Radio Network in preparation for the forum. Veteran award-winning journalist Lester Holt had agreed to moderate.
Jerry Lopes, president of Pittsburgh-based American Urban Radio Network, said on Monday that both candidates declined to appear, citing scheduling conflicts.
NNPA President and CEO Bill Tompkins said that the forums like the one proposed by the Black groups would have given Obama the opportunity to outline his support for programs that hope to address issues plaguing the Black community.
“We need to hear that (Obama) is looking out for us, that he cares for us and that he wants us to participate in the great American Dream,” Tompkins explained.
Although both major candidates rejected the invitation to address issues important to African-Americans, both found time to sit down with Latino news anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas for a presidential forum that aired last month on Univision, the Spanish-language television network, with Romney appearing Sep. 19 and Obama the following day.
Romney carved out 35 minutes for the program and Obama shared a full hour. The candidates were grilled on topics concerning Latino voters such as immigration, the drug war, and the controversial Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM).
Univision pressured the candidates to attend the forum held at the University of Miami after organizers of the presidential debate denied Univision’s request to add a fourth debate with a minority moderator.
“It’s so interesting, because the Commission on Presidential Debates seems to believe that it is OK to have an African-American president, but it is not OK to have a moderator from a minority group,” said Jorge Ramos during an interview with National Public Radio.
Since 1988, only three Black journalists have moderated debates presented by CPD. CNN’s Bernard Shaw moderated the 1988 presidential debate between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and another former Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis. That debate was the most watched program that season with 67.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
In 1992, ABC anchor Carole Simpson became the first African-American woman to moderate a presidential debate when she took the stage for the contest between then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, President George H.W. Bush and Independent business tycoon Ross Perot.
Shaw returned to the post in 2000 to moderate the vice presidential debate between Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
PBS anchor Gwen Ifill moderated the vice presidential debate in 2004 between Vice Cheney and U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). In 2008, she repeated her performance for the contest between then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Black journalists have moderated just four debates, two presidential debates and two vice presidential debates, in 20 years. During the same period, PBS veteran news anchor Jim Lehrer moderated 10 presidential debates, including all three presidential debates in 2000 and one vice presidential debate.
This year, CNN chief political correspondent and host of “State of the Union” Candy Crowley will become the first woman in two decades to moderate a presidential debate. Crowley has big shoes to fill. Simpson also holds the record for the highest number of viewers for a presidential debate at 69.9 million.
Atlhough the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonprofit organization that advocates for public policy reform to improve communities of color, applauded the CPD for selecting Crowley to moderate one of the presidential debates, they questioned the commissions rationale for denying Univision’s request for a fourth debate in a letter written to Janet Brown, executive director for the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The commission argued that the general election debate focuses on “issues of national interest that affect all citizens, including Univision’s audience.”
The Joint Center pointed to unemployment as one of the issues that disproportionately affects minorities that may require a more complicated solution than one suited for a general audience. The unemployment rate for blacks was 14.1 percent in August, six points higher than the national average (8.1 percent) and nearly double the rate for whites (7.2 percent). The unemployment rate for Latinos was 10.2 percent.
The Joint Center compared the lack of Black and Latino moderators to the television industry’s practice of keeping minorities off the screen for fear of losing their mainstream audience.
In the letter to Brown written in August, the Joint Center said that it “sees the Commission’s exclusion of people of color as moderators from this year’s televised presidential debates as a derivative of that practice.”
It’s a practice that may be losing steam.
As the country’s population grows more diverse so does its electorate, driving the push for greater minority representation at the podium and behind the moderator’s desk.
Critics of the Commission on Presidential Debates argue that the exclusion of minority journalists contradicts the trends in population diversity and growth in voter turnout among minorities.
According to the Pew Research Center, Black voter turnout increased nearly 5 percentage points from 2004 to 2008 (65.3 percent) and Hispanic voter turnout nearly reached 50 percent in 2008. White voter turnout slipped during the last presidential election to 66.1 percent.
Black women led all voters for the 2008 presidential election with a 68.8 percent voter turnout rate. The Black youth (18-29 years old) voter turnout skyrocketed 8.7 percent to 58.2 percent, historic levels for Blacks in that age bracket.
Even though Romney received 0 percent of Black voters support in an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll in August, political pundits contend Obama shouldn’t count poll numbers as votes already in bag for November.