Debate Commission snubs Latinos — again

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With the presidential election 57 days away, the campaign season is coming into sharper focus. On Wednesday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the moderators for the upcoming debates. Chris Wallace from Fox News will moderate the first Trump-Biden debate on Sept. 29; Steve Scully of C-SPAN will moderate the second on Oct. 15. The third debate will be moderated by Kristen Welker of NBC News on Oct. 22, and Susan Page of USA Today will helm the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 7.

While this is an esteemed group of journalists, the Commission again decided not to have any Latino moderators for the debates. In fact, there has never been a Latino moderator for a U.S. presidential debate. At this point, the Commission has moved past seeming to overlook qualified Latinos journalists; with its latest selections, it’s beginning to feel like there’s a mindset of exclusion.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is a nonpartisan organization that has overseen all the presidential debates since 1987. The list of past moderators amounts to a Who’s Who of influential journalists, with alumni including Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer, and Jim Lehrer. Many of them are household names, in part, due to their exposure on the debate stage before a vast audience. The final 2016 debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, for instance, drew over 71 million viewers.

That’s what makes the Commission’s action this election cycle so disappointing. Over the years, the Commission has not shied from choosing moderators that reflect our country’s diversity. Past moderators in the debates have included an African American man (Lester Holt), an out gay man (Anderson Cooper), an Asian American woman (Elaine Quijano, who moderated the vice-presidential debate in 2016), and notable female journalists as well. It is a glaring omission that there has yet to be a Latino named to such a prestigious role. To put this in perspective, imagine if we had never had an African American or female debate moderator. That would be unthinkable in 2020.

It’s not as though there is a shortage of qualified Latinos to host a national debate. The Commission could have picked Jim Acosta (CNN), Ed O’Keefe (CBS News), Tom Llamas (ABC News), Jose Diaz-Balart (NBC/Telemundo), Cecilia Vega (ABC), or Maria Hinojosa (NPR). There are other journalists, from Spanish-language networks (Jorge Ramos of Univision) and independent media (Soledad O’Brien), capable of performing such high-profile duties too. The absence of a Latino moderator seems especially bad judgement since three of the four debates fall within Hispanic Heritage Month, and the third debate will be held in Miami.

The Commission cannot claim to be unaware of how much representation matters to the Latino community. After the group declined to choose any Latino moderators for the 2016 debates, the then-head of Univision sent an open letter to the Commission expressing “disappointment, and frankly, disbelief” over their decision. That same year, the then-CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce publicly criticized the Commission’s stance on the issue. This July, the Latino Community Foundation wrote to the Commission’s executive director, respectfully asking for a Latino moderator to be named. There have been op-eds on this topic in Hispanic and in mainstream media as well.

But the status quo has not changed — even with Latinos on track to be the largest share of non-white voters in the upcoming election. The Pew Center projects that a record 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in November, and Latinos will be critical voting blocs in battleground states like Florida and Arizona. It’s no wonder that the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has called out the Commission’s decision as “irresponsible” and “inexcusable.”

By not choosing a Latino moderator, the Commission is sending a clear message that Latino visibility does not matter to them. This stance is problematic, given that that Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and because President Trump’s signature issue is immigration. Once again, Latinos will tune in to the debates and see other people talking about our communities and the issues that matter to us. Yet we will not be participants in the conversations.

None of this is the fault of the chosen moderators, and there is no doubt that they will ably fulfill their roles. The problem here is that Latinos are — literally — being denied a seat at the table. The Commission had sole discretion to choose moderators, according to the New York Times, and the presidential campaigns were not allowed to veto their choices. So the Commission, whose top leadership includes a single Latina, owns this situation.

Latinos deserve representation in all aspects of civic life. The Commission’s failure to choose a Latino moderator is indefensible and unacceptable.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.

Tags 2020 election 2020 presidential debates Chris Wallace Debate Moderators Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Hispanic and Latino Americans Hispanic/Latino vote Jim Acosta Joe Biden

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