When ABC News' Carole Simpson was hired as the first female and African American presidential debate moderator in 1992, it never occurred to her that two decades would pass without another being chosen. But in the years since she slung questions at candidates George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, not one woman has been chosen for the role.
A trio of high school students has circulated a Change.org petition demanding a female moderator for the upcoming elections, and Simpson says the timing couldn't be better. "Now that we are back in 1971 again with Mitt Romney suggesting that he wants to kill Planned Parenthood and overturn Roe v. Wade, this year more than any other presidential year needs a female moderator," she told The Huffington Post. "And not like the one I was."
Even though Simpson cracked a glass ceiling as the first minority woman to run a presidential debate, the event was not the major feminist breakthrough it seems, she said. The 1992 presidential campaign saw the first "town hall" style debate, which means Simpson's job mainly consisted of walking through the audience and handing people the microphone so they could ask their own questions.
"They kept saying they wanted an Oprah-style town hall format, so that probably had something to do with them choosing a black woman," she said. "I was told in my earpiece by a producer, 'Go interview the lady in the green dress on the left, and now the man in the red sweater.' I had no control over the questions that were asked, or who asked, or in what order. I was like a traffic cop."
If she could have asked Bush her own question, it wouldn't have been the one everyone else was asking about his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.
"I knew him quite well and had covered him for eight years, and I heard him say one thing to white suburban audiences and then go into minority communities and say something quite different," she said. "I wanted to ask him, 'What is that all about?'"
The Commission on Presidential Debates, the organization in charge of selecting debate moderators, has chosen only one woman besides Simpson since it took over the debate process in 1987. PBS's Gwen Ifill presided over the vice presidential debates held in 2004 and 2008. The lack of female voices in the presidential debates highlights an issue that continues to plague American media: Men do the vast majority of the talking, even on issues of particular import to women.
A recent study of major publications found that men are quoted five times as frequently as women on issues such as abortion, birth control and Planned Parenthood. On general election topics, including the economy and foreign policy, men had 81 percent of quotes on the 11 major national television shows.
Simpson says the reality that men controlled the media was never more clear to her than in 1998, when Viagra first hit the market. "ABC News was mostly middle-aged men, so we had Viagra stories up the kazoo. Every night, we did a story about Viagra, and all the women are like, 'Enough already!'"
When a revolutionary breast cancer treatment called Tamoxifen came out that same year, Simpson said the female reporters had to fight to get the story on the air. "We only did one story on it."
Now that women's health issues are at the forefront of the political discussion in 2012, the timing seems ripe for a female moderator. The Change.org petition, which has nearly 120,000 signatures, suggests a few possible contenders: Gwen Ifill, ABC News' Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, CNN's Christiane Amanpour and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
Janet Brown, executive director of the CPD, told the Christian Science Monitor that the commission is looking for veteran TV broadcasters who “understand their job is to facilitate the conversation and focus their time on the candidates.”
None of the candidates mentioned by the petition, in Simpson's opinion, are quite perfect for the job. Amanpour, she says, is "fabulous on foreign issues," but not as experienced on domestic ones. The others are too closely tied with one political party or the other. Simpson says her picks would be PBS's Judy Woodruff or CNN's Soledad O'Brien.
"Now that they're talking about eroding so many gains that women had, I think it's symbolically important and editorially important that a woman with a lot of news chops and some gravitas be a moderator of one of those debates," Simpson said.